Nociceptors, i.e. sensory neurons tuned to detect noxious stimuli, are found in numerous phyla of the Animalia kingdom and are often polymodal, responding to a variety of stimuli, e.g. heat, cold, pressure and chemicals, such as acid. Owing to the ability of protons to have a profound effect on ionic homeostasis and damage macromolecular structures, it is no wonder that the ability to detect acid is conserved across many species. To detect changes in pH, nociceptors are equipped with an assortment of different acid sensors, some of which can detect mild changes in pH, such as the acid-sensing ion channels, proton-sensing G protein-coupled receptors and several two-pore potassium channels, whereas others, such as the transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 ion channel, require larger shifts in pH. This review will discuss the evolution of acid sensation and the different mechanisms by which nociceptors can detect acid. This article is part of the Theo Murphy meeting issue 'Evolution of mechanisms and behaviour important for pain'.