Beta-blocker therapy has a mortality benefit in patients with hypertension, heart failure and coronary artery disease, as well as during the perioperative period. These drugs have traditionally been considered contraindicated in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The objective of this study was to assess the effect of cardioselective beta-blockers on respiratory function of patients with COPD. Comprehensive searches were performed of the EMBASE, MEDLINE and CINAHL databases from 1966 to May 2001, and identified articles and related reviews were scanned. Randomised, blinded, controlled trials that studied the effects of cardioselective beta-blockers on the forced expiratory volume in 1 s (FEV1) or symptoms in patients with COPD were included in the analysis. Interventions studied were the administration of beta-blocker, given either as a single dose or for longer duration, and the use of beta2-agonist given after the study drug. Outcomes measured were the change in FEV1 from baseline and the number of patients with respiratory symptoms. Eleven studies of single-dose treatment and 8 of continued treatment were included. Cardioselective beta-blockers produced no significant change in FEV1 or respiratory symptoms compared to placebo, given as a single dose (-2.05% [95% CI, -6.05% to 1.96%]) or for longer duration (-2.55% [CI, -5.94% to 0.84]), and did not significantly affect the FEV1 treatment response to beta2-agonists. Subgroup analyses revealed no significant change in results for those participants with severe chronic airways obstruction or for those with a reversible obstructive component. In conclusion, cardioselective beta-blockers given to patients with COPD do not produce a significant reduction in airway function or increase the incidence of COPD exacerbations. Given their demonstrated benefit in conditions such as heart failure, coronary artery disease and hypertension, cardioselective beta-blockers should be considered for patients with COPD.