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Traumatic brain injury (TBI) occurs when an external force traumatically injures the brain. Whereas severe TBI can be diagnosed using a combination of clinical signs and standard neuroimaging techniques, mild TBI (also called concussion) is more difficult to detect. This is where fluid markers of injury to different cell types and subcellular compartments in the central nervous system come into play. These markers are often proteins, peptides or other molecules with selective or high expression in the brain, which can be measured in the cerebrospinal fluid or blood as they leak out or get secreted in response to the injury. Here, we review the literature on fluid markers of neuronal, axonal and astroglial injury to diagnose mild TBI and to predict clinical outcome in patients with head trauma. We also discuss chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive neurodegenerative disease in individuals with a history of multiple mild TBIs in a biomarker context. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled ‘Traumatic Brain Injury’.