Remarkably, with the exception of anaesthetic gases, the ancient human practice of inhaling substances into the lungs for systemic effect has only just begun to be adopted by modern medicine. Treatment of asthma by inhaled drugs began in earnest in the 1950s, and now such 'topical' or targeted treatment with inhaled drugs is considered for treating many other lung diseases. More recently, major advances have led to increasing interest in systemic delivery of drugs by inhalation. Small molecules can be delivered with very rapid action, low metabolism and high bioavailability; and macromolecules can be delivered without injections, as highlighted by the recent approval of the first inhaled insulin product. Here, we review these advances, and discuss aspects of lung physiology and formulation composition that influence the systemic delivery of inhaled therapeutics.