The number of patients with end-stage renal disease (ESRD) is increasing worldwide, with a growing demand on healthcare services. A systematic review of the literature was performed to determine the requirement for intensive care unit (ICU) services, reasons for admission, predictors of mortality, and short- and long-term outcomes of ESRD patients admitted to ICU. Sixteen studies were identified, comprising 6591 ICU admissions. Cardiovascular disease and sepsis accounted for the majority of admissions. Acute illness severity scores tend to overestimate mortality among ESRD patients. Critical illness associated with acute kidney injury (AKI) requiring renal replacement therapy (RRT) is associated with significantly higher hospital mortality compared with ESRD patients admitted to the ICU [odds ratio (OR) 3.9; 3.5–4.4; P<0.0001]. However, hospital mortality of ESRD patients is less favourable compared with matched patients with mild AKI (OR 1.5; 1.4–1.6; P<0.0001). Although the mortality rate remains high shortly after hospital discharge, the duration of increased mortality risk is unclear. Patients with ESRD frequently benefit from ICU admission, despite chronic co-morbidity. Further studies are required to modify and validate existing illness severity scores for ESRD patients admitted to the ICU, and to establish the duration of increased mortality risk after discharge from ICU.