BACKGROUND: Chronic airways obstruction is common in adults and the elderly. To investigate the possibility that older adults with obstructive airways disease frequently do not receive appropriate treatment, the respiratory symptoms, medication use, and pulmonary function were studied in a random sample of white adults aged over 45 living in central Manchester, UK. METHODS: A postal questionnaire survey was performed on 783 men and women aged 45 years and over selected from GP lists by random number tables. Subjects completing the questionnaire were invited to attend for pulmonary function testing and methacholine challenge (Newcastle dosimeter method). RESULTS: The questionnaire response rate was 92.3% (723 subjects). The mean age of the population was 66.1 years and 57.2% were women; 29.2% were current smokers and 37.3% were ex-smokers. Asthma or bronchitis was reported by 30.0%. Two hundred and forty seven representative subjects attended for pulmonary function testing and spirometric evidence of chronic airways obstruction was found in 26.4%. Respiratory symptoms were reported by 76.6% of subjects with chronic airways obstruction; 55.0% had features which may predict potential improvement on treatment (increased non-specific bronchial responsiveness or significant bronchodilator reversibility). However, only 55.4% of subjects with airways obstruction had received a diagnosis of asthma or chronic bronchitis and only 36.9% were using inhaled bronchodilators or steroids. CONCLUSIONS: Chronic airways obstruction is very common in adults in this inner city population, but is frequently overlooked. Most subjects with chronic airways obstruction are not receiving appropriate treatment.