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Postoperative pulmonary complications (PPCs) are common and lead to longer hospital stays and higher mortality. A wide range of patient, anaesthetic and surgical factors have been associated with risk for PPCs. This review discusses our present understanding of PPC risk factors that can be used to plan preoperative risk reduction strategies. The methodological and statistical basis for building risk scores is also described.Studies in specific surgical populations or large patient samples have identified a range of predictors of PPC risk. Factors such as age, types of comorbidity and surgical characteristics have been found to be relevant in most of these studies. Recently, researchers have begun to develop risk scoring systems for a PPC composite outcome or for specific PPCs, especially pneumonia and respiratory failure. Preoperative arterial oxyhaemoglobin saturation is an objective measure that is easy to record and discriminates level of risk for impaired cardiorespiratory function. Preoperative anaemia and recent respiratory infection are factors that have lately been found to confer risk for PPCs.PPC risk prediction scales based on large population studies are being developed. New studies to confirm the validity of these scales in different geographic areas will be needed before we can be sure of their generalizability.