A longitudinal cohort study of older adults with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who were stratified by FEV(1) at enrollment was done to define the etiology, frequency, severity, and medical-care impact of respiratory tract viral infections (RTVIs). Controls consisted of a group of subjects of comparable age with the patients. RTVIs were documented in 44% of observed acute respiratory illnesses in control subjects and in 27% of COPD subjects, who were followed for mean periods of 35 and 26 mo, respectively. In this heavily influenza-vaccinated cohort ( approximately 90% vaccinated each year), picornaviruses, parainfluenza viruses, and coronaviruses were most commonly identified. Mean time to return to clinical baseline was approximately 2 wk in each group. Control and COPD subjects with mild airways obstruction (baseline FEV(1) >/= 50% predicted) had few emergency-center visits or hospitalizations. Approximately half of COPD subjects with moderate/severe COPD (baseline FEV(1) < 50% predicted) had at least one emergency-center visit and/or hospitalization for acute respiratory illness. RTVIs were documented in 23% of hospitalizations and in 45% of patients admitted between December and March. RTVIs have a major impact on utilization of health care resources for COPD patients with moderate/severe airways obstruction.