Reversible airways obstruction is not uncommon in the elderly, but may be overlooked because of the high prevalence of other disorders with a similar presentation. In a search for patterns of symptoms which might predict treatable airways obstruction, we carried out a survey of men and women aged 65 yrs and over. Postal questionnaires were completed by 2,161 subjects selected at random from the lists of three general practices. Almost 60% of the sample complained of one or more respiratory symptoms. Smoking was a more important risk factor than age, sex or social class, and was associated particularly with wheeze, morning phlegm and chest tightness on waking. Several groups of symptoms tended to cluster in the same individuals. The two most closely related were chest tightness and breathlessness in response to animals, dust and feathers. Responses to irritants tended to cluster according to the symptom produced (cough, breathlessness or wheeze) rather than the provoking stimulus (smoke, cold air, household chemicals or traffic fumes). There was no evidence for the existence of the "bronchial irritability syndrome" which has been linked with asthma in younger adults. The relationship of symptoms to respiratory function and bronchial reactivity will be reported in a further publication.