Cold air may worsen asthmatic bronchoconstriction but can lessen breathlessness in normal individuals. Patients with COPD sometimes report improvement in their dyspnea in cold weather. We examined the effect of breathing cold air on exercise tolerance and the perception of breathlessness in 19 patients with stable COPD (age [+/- SD], 63 +/- 6 years; FEV1, 0.99 +/- 0.28 L) in a randomized open study. Patients exercised on a cycle ergometer breathing either room or cold air (-13 degrees C), breathlessness being assessed by Borg scaling. Peak exercise performance improved when breathing cold air (mean +/- SE), 46 +/- 6 W compared with 37 +/- 7 W (p < 0.05) while end-exercise breathlessness fell from 4.6 +/- 0.4 compared with 4.1 +/- 0.5 (p < 0.05) when breathing cold air. End-exercise ETCO2 was higher breathing cold air (6.1 +/- 0.3 kPa compared with 5.5 +/- 0.3 kPa) (p < 0.005). There was no difference in breathlessness at equivalent levels of ventilation. Cold air reduces breathlessness in COPD, probably by inducing relative hypoventilation.