Controlled hypothermia is used as a therapeutic intervention to provide neuroprotection and (more recently) cardioprotection. The growing insight into the underlying pathophysiology of apoptosis and destructive processes at the cellular level, and the mechanisms underlying the protective effects of hypothermia, have led to improved application and to a widening of the range of potential indications. In many centres hypothermia has now become part of the standard therapy for post-anoxic coma in certain patients, but for other indications its use still remains controversial. The negative findings of some studies may be partly explained by inadequate protocols for the application of hypothermia and insufficient attention to the prevention of potential side effects. This review deals with some of the concepts underlying hypothermia-associated neuroprotection and cardioprotection, and discusses some potential clinical indications as well as reasons why some clinical trials may have produced conflicting results. Practical aspects such as methods to induce hypothermia, as well as the side effects of cooling are also discussed.