Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a leading cause of death in the USA, and represents a major health, social and economic burden. COPD is underdiagnosed and often misdiagnosed, which likely contributes to the continuing increases in the prevalence, morbidity and mortality associated with this disease. This is unfortunate because whereas COPD cannot be cured, it can be treated effectively, particularly during the earlier stages of the disease. Evidence-based guidelines, developed to assist in the prevention, diagnosis and management of COPD, are available to healthcare professionals interested in learning more about COPD. These guidelines are updated and revised on a regular basis to reflect recent advances in our understanding of the pathophysiology of and treatments available for COPD. Nevertheless, primary-care physicians have reported a lack of awareness of the fundamental concepts underpinning the optimal treatment and management of COPD presented in the guidelines. Thus, the objective of this article is to summarise key physiologic, diagnostic and management concepts provided in the most recent update of the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) guidelines, which were published in November 2006.