Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a major cause of chronic morbidity and mortality and represents a substantial economic and social burden throughout the world. It is the fifth leading cause of death worldwide and further increases in its prevalence and mortality are expected in the coming decades. The substantial morbidity associated with COPD is often underestimated by health-care providers and patients; likewise, COPD is frequently underdiagnosed and undertreated. COPD develops earlier in life than is usually believed. Tobacco smoking is by far the major risk for COPD and the prevalence of the disease in different countries is related to rates of smoking and time of introduction of cigarette smoking. Contribution of occupational risk factors is quite small, but may vary depending on a country's level of economic development. Severe deficiency for alpha-1-antitrypsin is rare and the impact of other genetic factors on the prevalence of COPD has not been established. COPD should be considered in any patient presenting with cough, sputum production, or dyspnoea, especially if an exposure to risk factors for the disease has been present. Clinical diagnosis needs to be confirmed by standardised spirometric tests in the presence of not-fully-reversible airflow limitation. COPD is generally a progressive disease. Continued exposure to noxious agents promotes a more rapid decline in lung function and increases the risk for repeated exacerbations. Smoking cessation is the only intervention shown to slow the decline. If exposure is stopped, the disease may still progress due to the decline in lung function that normally occurs with aging, and some persistence of the inflammatory response.