COPD is a preventable and treatable disease characterized by airflow limitation that is not fully reversible. The diagnosis of COPD is based on spirometric evidence of airways obstruction following bronchodilator administration. Although it used to be commonly believed that patients with COPD have largely irreversible airflow obstruction, evidence now suggests that a considerable proportion of patients exhibit clinically significant bronchodilator reversibility. The complexity and inherent variability of a patient's acute response to a bronchodilator and the lack of a standardized procedure for assessing bronchodilator reversibility have led to significant confusion surrounding this concept. Although bronchodilator reversibility commonly is defined based on thresholds for improvement in FEV(1), lung volume-based measures of pulmonary function may be of particular importance in patients with severe COPD. The usefulness of acute reversibility to short-acting bronchodilators in predicting a patient's long-term response to bronchodilator maintenance therapy is also unclear, although most studies suggest that a lack of acute response to short-acting bronchodilators does not preclude a beneficial long-term response to maintenance bronchodilator treatment. This review outlines recent findings about the prevalence and usefulness of bronchodilator reversibility in patients with COPD based on the available literature and proposes areas of future research.