Heat and moisture exchangers and breathing system filters are intended to replace the normal warming, humidifying and filtering functions of the upper airways when these structures are bypassed during anaesthesia and intensive care. Guidance on their use continues to evolve. The aim of this part of the review is to describe the principles of their action and efficiency and to summarise the findings from clinical and laboratory studies. Based on previous studies, an appropriate minimum target for moisture output is 30 and 20 g.m−3 for long-duration use in intensive care and short-duration use in anaesthesia, respectively. The practice of reusing a breathing system in anaesthesia, provided it is protected by a filter, assumes that the filter is effective. However, there is wide variation in the gas-borne filtration performance, and contaminated condensate can potentially pass through some filters under typical pressures encountered during mechanical ventilation.