During acute viral infection CD8 T cells rapidly expand before contracting down to a persistent memory population that confers long-lasting immunity. However when the antigen persists, such as during chronic viral infection, a dysfunctional process termed ‘exhaustion’ limits the antiviral response, facilitating ongoing viraemia and poor clinical outcome. CD8 T-cell exhaustion was originally identified in lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus infection of mice; however, new evidence has shown that exhaustion is associated with the control of a wide range of human chronic inflammatory states, including chronic viral infection, autoimmunity and cancer. Consequently, an understanding of the mechanisms controlling exhaustion during chronic infection may also indicate new strategies for controlling other chronic inflammatory diseases. In particular, the success of immune checkpoint blockade as a form of cancer immunotherapy has prompted renewed efforts to understand how T-cell immunity to chronic antigenic stimulation might similarly be measured or modulated in autoimmune diseases. Here we summarise the mechanisms controlling T-cell exhaustion and how they relate to the control of autoimmune responses, providing a future perspective on measuring or manipulating exhaustion to personalise therapy.