Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is defined by progressive, irreversible airflow limitation and an inflammatory response of the lungs, usually to cigarette smoke. However, COPD is a heterogeneous disease in terms of clinical, physiologic, and pathologic presentation. We aimed to evaluate whether airflow limitation, airway responsiveness, and airway inflammation are separate entities underlying the pathophysiology of COPD by using factor analysis. A total of 114 patients (99 males/15 females, age 62 +/- 8 years, 42 pack-years smoking, no inhaled or oral steroids > 6 months) with irreversible airflow limitation (postbronchodilator FEV(1) 63 +/- 9% predicted, FEV(1)/inspiratory vital capacity [IVC] 48 +/- 9%) and symptoms of chronic bronchitis or dyspnea were studied in a cross-sectional design. Postbronchodilator FEV(1) and FEV(1)/IVC, reversibility to inhaled beta(2)-agonists, diffusing capacity, provocative concentration of methacholine required to produce a 20% drop in FEV(1), total serum IgE, exhaled nitric oxide, and induced sputum cell counts (% eosinophils, % neutrophils) were collected. Factor analysis yielded 4 separate factors that accounted for 63.6% of the total variance. Factor 1 was comprised of FEV(1), FEV(1)/IVC, and residual volume/total lung capacity. Factor 2 included reversibility, IgE, provocative concentration of methacholine required to produce a 20% drop in FEV(1,) and diffusing capacity. Factor 3 contained exhaled nitric oxide and factor 4 included sputum % neutrophils and % eosinophils. We conclude that airflow limitation, airway inflammation, and features commonly associated with asthma are separate and largely independent factors in the pathophysiology of COPD.