The peritoneum defines a confined microenvironment, which is stable under normal conditions, but is exposed to the damaging effect of infections, surgical injuries, and other neoplastic and non-neoplastic events. Its response to damage includes the recruitment, proliferation, and activation of a variety of haematopoietic and stromal cells. In physiological conditions, effective responses to injuries are organized; inflammatory triggers are eliminated; inflammation quickly abates; and the normal tissue architecture is restored. However, if inflammatory triggers are not cleared, fibrosis or scarring occurs and impaired tissue function ultimately leads to organ failure. Autoimmune serositis is characterized by the persistence of self-antigens and a relapsing clinical pattern. Peritoneal carcinomatosis and endometriosis are characterized by the persistence of cancer cells or ectopic endometrial cells in the peritoneal cavity. Some of the molecular signals orchestrating the recruitment of inflammatory cells in the peritoneum have been identified in the last few years. Alternative activation of peritoneal macrophages was shown to guide angiogenesis and fibrosis, and could represent a novel target for molecular intervention. This review summarizes current knowledge of the alterations to the immune response in the peritoneal environment, highlighting the ambiguous role played by persistently activated reparative macrophages in the pathogenesis of common human diseases. Copyright © 2017 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.