Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive disease that begins many years before a diagnosis is usually made. The need for an early and confirmed diagnosis of COPD is increasingly appreciated by primary care physicians in whose hands the ability to make improvements in early diagnosis largely rests. Case-finding of patients with symptoms of lifestyle limitation is probably the most practical way to achieve early diagnosis. Evidence suggests a burden of early COPD on afflicted people and their families. Early encouragement of smoking cessation, in conjunction with management of symptoms and treating activity limitation and exacerbations by appropriate non-pharmacologic and pharmacologic management at the earliest possible stage, could positively affect the impact and progression of the disease.