A widespread, rather general, definition of contrast-induced nephropathy (CIN) is an impairment in renal function occurring within 3 days following the intravascular administration of contrast media (CM) and the absence of an alternative aetiology. In spite of the vast clinical importance of CIN, its understanding and the pathophysiology behind CIN remain incomplete. Many studies have been performed; however, they have provided no widely accepted conclusion so far. Here the possible mechanisms underlying CIN are outlined, which span from altered rheological properties, perturbation of renal haemodynamics, regional hypoxia, auto-, and paracrine factors (adenosine, endothelin, reactive oxygen species) to direct cytotoxic effects. Although these potential mediators of CIN will be discussed separately, several factors may act in concert to perturb kidney function after exposure to contrast media. From the current knowledge of the mechanisms causing CIN, it is not possible to recommend a certain class of contrast media, except to avoid large doses of CM of the first generation. From a pathophysiological perspective, volume expansion is effective in avoiding CIN, since water permeability of the collecting ducts will decrease and enhance fluid excretion. Hence, CM in the distal portions of the tubular system is diluted, which implies reduced fluid viscosity and a lower risk of obstruction.