Although exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are associated with symptomatic and physiological deterioration, little is known of the time course and duration of these changes. We have studied symptoms and lung function changes associated with COPD exacerbations to determine factors affecting recovery from exacerbation. A cohort of 101 patients with moderate to severe COPD (mean FEV(1) 41.9% predicted) were studied over a period of 2.5 yr and regularly followed when stable and during 504 exacerbations. Patients recorded daily morning peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR) and changes in respiratory symptoms on diary cards. A subgroup of 34 patients also recorded daily spirometry. Exacerbations were defined by major symptoms (increased dyspnea, increased sputum purulence, increased sputum volume) and minor symptoms. Before onset of exacerbation there was deterioration in the symptoms of dyspnea, sore throat, cough, and symptoms of a common cold (all p < 0.05), but not lung function. Larger falls in PEFR were associated with symptoms of increased dyspnea (p = 0.014), colds (p = 0.047), or increased wheeze (p = 0.009) at exacerbation. Median recovery times were 6 (interquartile range [IQR] 1 to 14) d for PEFR and 7 (IQR 4 to 14) d for daily total symptom score. Recovery of PEFR to baseline values was complete in only 75.2% of exacerbations at 35 d, whereas in 7.1% of exacerbations at 91 d PEFR recovery had not occurred. In the 404 exacerbations where recovery of PEFR to baseline values was complete at 91 d, increased dyspnea and colds at onset of exacerbation were associated with prolonged recovery times (p < 0.001 in both cases). Symptom changes during exacerbation do not closely reflect those of lung function, but their increase may predict exacerbation, with dyspnea or colds characterizing the more severe. Recovery is incomplete in a significant proportion of COPD exacerbations.