To investigate the efficacy of bronchodilators in patients with irreversible chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), we conducted a double-blind, randomized, four-phase, crossover comparison between placebo, oral theophylline, inhaled salbutamol, and a combination of both drugs in 12 patients with stable COPD (mean age, 63 years) whose increase in forced expiratory volume in 1 s (FEV1) was less than or equal to 15 percent following 200 micrograms of inhaled salbutamol. Patients received two weeks of therapy with each of the test regimens. Both theophylline and salbutamol resulted in statistically significant improvement in FEV1, forced vital capacity (FVC), slow vital capacity (SVC), residual volume (RV), airway resistance (Raw), and maximum expiratory flow rate at 50 percent of vital capacity (V50). In most instances, there were no significant differences between theophylline and salbutamol. Combination therapy produced significantly greater improvement in FEV1, FVC, V50, Raw, and RV than either agent alone. The two drugs interacted in an additive fashion. Neither of the drugs, used singly, significantly reduced the severity or incidence of symptoms. The reduction in dyspnea and wheeze during combination therapy approached statistical significance (p = 0.06) and patient preference was significantly in favor of the combination regimen. None of the active treatments produced significantly more side effects than placebo. We conclude that theophylline and inhaled salbutamol produce significant, and approximately equal, improvement in pulmonary function in patients traditionally classified as suffering from "irreversible" COPD. The combination of theophylline and inhaled salbutamol generally results in additional improvement over that obtained with either drug used alone and this improvement is reflected by reduced symptomatology and treatment preference.