Seven patients with chronic obstructive lung disease (COLD) were monitored during their overnight sleep to determine the occurrence of disordered breathing and oxygen desaturation. Nasal and oral airflows were sensed by thermistor probes, chest wall movement by impedance pneumography and arterial oxygen saturation by ear oximetry. These variables were correlated with electroencephalographic and electrooculographic tracings. The subjects had a mean base line oxygen saturation of 89.2 per cent and slept an average of 218 minutes. Six of these seven subjects had one to 30 episodes of oxygen desaturation (decrease more than 4 per cent), 4 seconds to 30 minutes in duration, with declines in saturation as great as 36 per cent. In two subjects, saturation dropped to less than 50 per cent. Breathing was disordered in five of the seven subjects and included apnea and hypopnea. Subjects experienced from nine to 37 episodes of disordered breathing. Disordered breathing caused 42 per cent of the episodes of desaturation, all of which were less than 1 minute in duration. The mean maximum decline in saturation was 7.6 per cent. All episodes of desaturation lasting longer than 5 minutes occurred in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and were not caused by disordered breathing. The mean maximal decrease in saturation was 22 per cent. This study reveals that disordered breathing is common in subjects with COLD and often causes desaturation but that it cannot explain all episodes of sleep desaturation.