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Fluid absorption is an unpredictable complication of endoscopic surgery. Absorption of small amounts of fluid (1–2 litre) occurs in 5–10% of patients undergoing transurethral prostatic resection and results in an easily overlooked mild transurethral resection (TUR) syndrome. Large-scale fluid absorption is rare but leads to symptoms severe enough to require intensive care. Pathophysiological mechanisms consist of pharmacological effects of the irrigant solutes, the volume effect of the irrigant water, dilutional hyponatraemia and brain oedema. Other less widely known factors include absolute losses of sodium by urinary excretion and morphological changes in the heart muscle, both of which promote a hypokinetic circulation. Studies in animals, volunteers and patients show that irrigation with glycine solution should be avoided. Preventive measures, such as low-pressure irrigation, might reduce the extent of fluid absorption but does not eliminate this complication. Monitoring the extent of absorption during surgery allows control of the fluid balance in the individual patient, but such monitoring is not used widely. However, the anaesthetist must be aware of the symptoms and be able to diagnose this complication. Treatment should be based on administration of hypertonic saline rather than on diuretics. New techniques, such as bipolar resectoscopes and vaporizing instead of resecting tissue, result in a continuous change of the prerequisites for fluid absorption and its consequences.