The current clinical classification of smoking-related lung disease fails to take into account the heterogeneity of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). With an increased understanding of pathophysiologic variation, COPD now clearly represents a spectrum of overlapping diseases with important extrapulmonary consequences. A "phenotype" describes the outward physical manifestations of a particular disease, and compromises anything that is part of the observable structure, function or behavior of an individual. Such phenotypic distinctions in COPD include: frequent exacerbator, pulmonary cachectic, rapid decliner, airways hyperresponsiveness, impaired exercise tolerance, and emphysema versus airways disease. These variable manifestations, each with unique prognostic, clinical and physiologic ramifications, represent distinct phenotypes within COPD. While all of these phenotypes have smoking as a common risk factor, the other risk factors that determine these phenotypes remain poorly understood. An individual smoker has variable expression of each phenotype and there is mounting evidence that COPD phenotypes have different clinical outcomes. These phenotypes can be broadly classified into one of three groups: clinical, physiologic and radiographic. This review presents the evidence for the spectrum of COPD phenotypes with a focused discussion on the pathophysiologic, epidemiologic and clinical significance of each subtype.