Reactive oxygen species (ROS) play an important role in the regulation of normal cellular function. When ROS are produced in excess they can have detrimental effects, a state known as oxidative stress. Thus ROS play both physiological and pathophysiological roles in the body. In clinical practice oxidative stress and its counterpart, antioxidant capacity can be measured and can guide remedial therapy. Oxidative stress can have a negative impact in all forms of major surgery including cardiac surgery, general surgery, trauma surgery, orthopedic surgery and plastic surgery; this is particularly marked in an ageing population. Many different therapies to reduce oxidative stress in surgery have been tried with variable results. We conclude that in surgical patients the assessment of oxidative stress, improvement of the understanding of its role, both positive and negative, and devising appropriate therapies represent fruitful fields for future research.