The lung pathology of severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) has been poorly investigated. We examined surgical specimens obtained from patients with severe (forced expiratory volume in 1 second [FEV(1)] = 29 +/- 3% predicted, n = 9) or mild/no airflow limitation (FEV(1) = 86 +/- 5% predicted, n = 9) and similar smoking history. With histochemical and immunohistochemical methods we quantified the structural changes and the inflammatory cells in small airways and in muscular pulmonary arteries. As compared with smokers with mild/no COPD, smokers with severe COPD had an increased number of leukocytes in the small airways, which showed a positive correlation with the radiologic score of emphysema and with the value of residual volume, and a negative correlation with the values of FEV(1) and carbon monoxide diffusing capacity. The inflammatory process was characterized by an increase in CD8(+) and CD4(+) T-lymphocytes in the airway wall and by an increase in macrophages in the airway epithelium. When all smokers were considered together, the smoking history was correlated with both the airway wall and smooth muscle thickness, suggesting that smoking itself may play a role in the development of structural changes. No structural and cellular differences were observed in pulmonary arteries between smokers with severe COPD and smokers with mild/no COPD. In conclusion, in the small airways of smokers with severe COPD, there is an increased number of leukocytes, which is correlated with reduced expiratory flow, lung hyperinflation, carbon monoxide diffusion impairment, and radiologic emphysema, suggesting a role for this inflammatory response in the clinical progression of the disease.