We measured breathlessness and exercise tolerance in 12 patients with chronic airways obstruction, moderate or severe breathlessness, and low or normal arterial carbon dioxide tension, after the patients received dihydrocodeine, alcohol, caffeine, or placebo (through double-blind administration). Forty-five minutes after ingestion, dihydrocodeine had reduced breathlessness by 20% and increased exercise tolerance by 18%, with a reduction in ventilation and oxygen consumption at submaximal work loads but with no change in spirometric volumes. Oxygen also reduced breathlessness and provided additional benefit to that achieved with dihydrocodeine (at three hours after ingestion) when the two were given together: the reduction of breathlessness was 18% with dihydrocodeine; 22% with oxygen; and 32% with dihydrocodeine plus oxygen. Alcohol increased forced vital capacity by 9%, and exercise tolerance by 7%. Caffeine had no deleterious effect on breathlessness or exercise tolerance, despite increasing ventilation during rest and exercise. We conclude that opiates may be valuable for the treatment of breathlessness in selected patients; further evaluation is needed, particularly of the long-term benefits and safety.