We prospectively studied emergency hospitalizations due to acute exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) among 74 hypercapnic patients, in order to determine factors which predict reversal to normocapnia as a result of therapy. Clinical, arterial blood gas and pulmonary function data on presentation were compared to predischarge values among those 58 patients who survived the admission. Patients were divided into those who reverted to normocapnia (reversible, 40% of surviving patients), and those who remained hypercapnic (chronic, 60% of surviving patients). Reversible patients had higher admission arterial oxygen tension (PaO2) levels than those with chronic hypercapnia (6.4 +/- 1.3 kPa (mean +/- SD), as compared to 5.7 +/- 1.1 kPa) better pulmonary function (forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) 35 +/- 16% predicted, as compared to 26 +/- 7.9), and a lower prevalence of cor pulmonale (30% as compared to 63% of patients). No admission variable(s) distinguished individual patients as reversible or chronic hypercapnic, and, in particular, admission arterial carbon dioxide tension (PaCO2) and pH levels were similar in both groups. Furthermore, there were no differences between survivors and those 16 patients who died during the admission, apart from a higher urea level among those who died. These findings suggest that reversible patients have milder underlying disease than those with chronic hypercapnia. Our data establish the high prevalence of reversible hypercapnia among patients hospitalized with exacerbations of COPD, and, furthermore, indicate that patients who are normocapnic in the stable state can develop similar levels of hypercapnia during exacerbations as those with chronic hypercapnia.