Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a common and morbid disease characterized by high oxidative stress. Its pathogenesis is complex, and involves excessive oxidative stress (redox imbalance), protease/antiprotease imbalance, inflammation, apoptosis, and autoimmunity. Among these, oxidative stress has a pivotal role in the pathogenesis of COPD by initiating and mediating various redox-sensitive signal transduction pathways and gene expression. The protective physiological mechanisms of the redox balance in the human body, their role in the pathogenesis of COPD, and the clinical correlation between oxidative stress and COPD are reviewed in this paper. N-acetylcysteine (NAC) is a mucolytic agent with both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. This paper also reviews the use of NAC in patients with COPD, especially the dose-dependent properties of NAC, eg, its effects on lung function and the exacerbation rate in patients with the disease. Earlier data from BRONCUS (the Bronchitis Randomized on NAC Cost-Utility Study) did not suggest that NAC was beneficial in patients with COPD, only indicating that it reduced exacerbation in an “inhaled steroid-naïve” subgroup. With regard to the dose-dependent properties of NAC, two recent randomized controlled Chinese trials suggested that high-dose NAC (1,200 mg daily) can reduce exacerbations in patients with COPD, especially in those with an earlier (moderately severe) stage of disease, and also in those who are at high risk of exacerbations. However, there was no significant effect on symptoms or quality of life in patients receiving NAC. Further studies are warranted to investigate the effect of NAC at higher doses in non-Chinese patients with COPD.