We investigated the relationship between the reversibility of airflow limitation, the concentration of nitric oxide (NO) in exhaled air, and the inflammatory cells in the sputum of patients with stable chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). We examined nine normal healthy control subjects and 20 nonatopic patients with COPD. Ten patients had no reversibility of airflow limitation (increase in FEV(1) of < 12% and < 200 ml after 200 microg of inhaled salbutamol), and 10 patients had partial reversibility of airflow limitation (increase in FEV(1) of < 12% but > 200 ml after 200 microg of inhaled salbutamol). Exhaled NO levels were higher in COPD patients with partial reversibility of airflow limitation than in those with no reversibility of airflow limitation (median 24 [interquartile range 15.3 to 32] ppb versus 8.9 [4.6 to 14.7] ppb; p < 0.01). Compared with healthy control subjects, only COPD patients with partial reversibility of airflow limitation had increased concentrations of sputum eosinophils. We conclude that, in patients with stable COPD, even a partial bronchodilator response to inhaled salbutamol is associated with increased exhaled NO and sputum eosinophilia, suggesting that these patients may have a different response to treatment than do those without reversible airflow limitation.