We have previously shown that one night of sleep deprivation results in significant deterioration of spirometric performance and ventilatory responsiveness to inhaled carbon dioxide in normal people. Since even a small decrease in pulmonary function may be clinically important in patients with chronic limitation of airflow, we undertook the present study to assess the effects of sleep loss on breathing in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Criteria for inclusion in this study were a ratio of the forced expiratory volume in one second over the forced vital capacity (FEV1/FVC) of less than 60 percent, no hospital admission for pulmonary disease within two weeks of testing, stable (less than 30 percent variation) in tests of pulmonary function on two occasions within three months of testing, and no history of asthma. We studied 15 men (mean age, 57 +/- 3 years) on two consecutive mornings. Patients were studied with and without sleep deprivation in a randomized fashion. Patients were hospitalized for the study so that sleep deprivation, medications, smoking, and diet could be monitored and enforced. We found small but statistically significant falls in FEV1 (1.06 +/- 0.11 to 1.00 +/- 0.09 L; p less than 0.05) and in FVC (2.56 +/- 0.20 to 2.43 +/- 0.17 L; p less than 0.05) following sleep deprivation. Changes of similar magnitude which were not statistically significant occurred in maximal voluntary ventilation (MVV) and response to carbon dioxide. The arterial oxygen (PaO2) and carbon dioxide (PaCO2) tensions were not affected. Maximal expiratory pressure at the mouth increased slightly, but there was a fall in maximal inspiratory pressure (MIP) at the mouth. We conclude that sleep loss is associated with small but significant falls in FEV1 and FVC, as well as changes of similar magnitude in MVV, minute ventilation, and MIP in patients with severe COPD. Although the sleep loss which frequently accompanies exacerbations of COPD may be a slight additional stress of pulmonary reserve, a single night's loss of sleep in the patient with stable chronic airflow obstruction does not have major clinical consequences.