Seasonal variations in temperature, rainfall and resource availability are ubiquitous and can exert strong pressures on population dynamics. Infectious diseases provide some of the best-studied examples of the role of seasonality in shaping population fluctuations. In this paper, we review examples from human and wildlife disease systems to illustrate the challenges inherent in understanding the mechanisms and impacts of seasonal environmental drivers. Empirical evidence points to several biologically distinct mechanisms by which seasonality can impact host–pathogen interactions, including seasonal changes in host social behaviour and contact rates, variation in encounters with infective stages in the environment, annual pulses of host births and deaths and changes in host immune defences. Mathematical models and field observations show that the strength and mechanisms of seasonality can alter the spread and persistence of infectious diseases, and that population-level responses can range from simple annual cycles to more complex multiyear fluctuations. From an applied perspective, understanding the timing and causes of seasonality offers important insights into how parasite–host systems operate, how and when parasite control measures should be applied, and how disease risks will respond to anthropogenic climate change and altered patterns of seasonality. Finally, by focusing on well-studied examples of infectious diseases, we hope to highlight general insights that are relevant to other ecological interactions.