Methacholine bronchoprovocation challenge testing was successfully completed in 5,662 participants (3,556 men and 2,106 women) at the time they were randomized into the Lung Health Study, a multicenter trial designed to evaluate early intervention in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). All participants were smokers between the ages of 35 and 60 yr who had mild COPD. The male:female prevalence of a positive challenge (PC20FEV1) was 25%:48% and 63%:87% at a PC20FEV1 of < or = 5 mg/ml (AHR5) and < or = 25 mg/ml (AHR25), respectively. This analysis explores these marked gender differences in airway hyperresponsiveness (AHR). Relative risks (RR) for predictors of AHR and the 95% confidence intervals (95% CI) were estimated using semiparametric Cox proportional-hazards models. The initial model controlled for age, gender, smoking history, height, and weight. The RR (95% CI) for female gender was 1.75 (1.60, 1.92). When the measured baseline FEV1 was added to the model as a surrogate for airway caliber, the RR for female gender decreased to 1.06 (0.96, 1.18). Thus, in this population of middle-aged smokers with mild COPD, the high prevalence of AHR appears to be associated with a decrease in airway caliber. The higher prevalence of AHR noted in women is due to their having a smaller airway caliber than their male counterparts.