Contrast-induced acute kidney injury (CIAKI) occurs in up to 30% of patients who receive iodinated contrast media and is generally considered to be the third most common cause of hospital-acquired AKI. Accurate assessment of the incidence of CIAKI is obscured, however, by the use of various definitions for diagnosis, the different populations studied and the prophylactic measures put in place. A deeper understanding of the mechanisms that underlie CIAKI is required to enable reliable risk assessment for individual patients, as their medical histories will determine the specific pathways by which contrast media administration might lead to kidney damage. Here, we highlight common triggers that prompt the development of CIAKI and the subsequent mechanisms that ultimately cause kidney damage. We also discuss effective protective measures, such as rapidly acting oral hydration schemes and loop diuretics, in the context of CIAKI pathophysiology. Understanding of how CIAKI arises in different patient groups could enable a marked reduction in incidence and improved outcomes. The ultimate goal is to shape CIAKI prevention strategies for individual patients.