The aim of the present study was to explore differences in the clinical expression, clinical diagnoses and management of airway diseases in a primary-care setting. Patients aged >or=35 yrs who had ever smoked were enrolled when they presented for any reason to one of eight rural primary-care practices. Respiratory symptom questionnaires and spirometry were administered. In total, 1,034 patients had acceptable and reproducible spirometry, of whom 550 (53%) were males and 484 (47%) were females. Males smoked more than females (41.2 versus 29.2 pack-yrs) respectively, and were more likely to have a pre-bronchodilator forced expiratory volume in one second/forced vital capacity <0.70 at 22.4 versus 11.8%, respectively. However, more females than males reported breathlessness (51.0 versus 42.8%, respectively), a prior diagnosis compatible with airflow obstruction and taking respiratory medications (23.4 versus 14.9%, respectively). In conclusion, the current results suggest that females are more likely than males to report breathlessness and be prescribed respiratory medications independent of differences in the severity of airflow obstruction.