Airway secretions are cleared by mucociliary clearance (MCC), in addition to other mechanisms such as cough, peristalsis, two-phase gas-liquid flow and alveolar clearance. MCC comprises the cephalad movement of mucus caused by the cilia lining the conducting airways until it can be swallowed or expectorated. MCC is a very complex process in which many variables are involved, all of which may modify the final outcome. The structure, number, movement and co-ordination of the cilia present in the airways as well as the amount, composition and rheological properties of the periciliary and mucus layers are determinants of MCC. Physiological factors such as age, sex, posture, sleep and exercise are reported to influence MCC due to a change in the cilia, the mucus or the periciliary layer, or a combination of these. Environmental pollution is suspected to have a depressant effect on MCC dependent on different factors such as pollutant concentration and the duration of exposure. Most studies focus on sulphur dioxide, sulphuric acid, nitrogen dioxide and ozone. Tobacco smoke and hairspray have been noted to have a negative influence on MCC. Some diseases are known to affect MCC, mostly negatively. The underlying mechanism differs from one illness to another. Immotile cilia syndrome, asthma, bronchiectasis, chronic bronchitis, cystic fibrosis and some acute respiratory tract infections are among the most frequently reported. The present paper reviews normal mucociliary clearance and the effects of diseases on this process.