The spatiotemporal control of RNA polymerase II (Pol II)-mediated gene transcription is tightly and intricately regulated. In addition, preservation of the integrity of the DNA template is required so as to ensure unperturbed transcription, particularly since DNA is continually challenged by different types of damaging agents that can form transcription-blocking DNA lesions (TBLs), which impede transcription elongation and cause transcription stress. To overcome the highly cytotoxic effects of TBLs, an intricate cellular response has evolved, in which the transcription-coupled nucleotide excision repair (TC-NER) pathway has a central role in removing TBLs specifically from the transcribed strand. Damage detection by stalling of the transcribing Pol II is highly efficient, but a stalled Pol II complex may create an even bigger problem by interfering with repair of the lesions, and overall with transcription and replication. In this Review, we discuss the effects of different types of DNA damage on Pol II, important concepts of transcription stress, the manner in which TBLs are removed by TC-NER and how different tissues respond to TBLs. We also discuss the role of TBLs in ageing and the complex genotype–phenotype correlations of TC-NER hereditary disorders.