We analyzed 795 sputa from 315 patients (233 males, mean age 69.3+/-8.8 years, mean number of exacerbations 2.52/patient) with acute exacerbations of moderate-to-severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (mean steady-state FEV1 42.5+/-7.8% of predicted). 581/795 sputa were considered adequate. Sputum was analyzed by a quali-quantitative colorimetric scale allowing both color distinction and color degree of intensity. Quantitative culture was then performed (threshold: >10(6)CFU/mL). Samples were distinguished in mucoid (145) and purulent (436) sputa. Absence of bacterial growth was observed in 22% and 5% of mucoid and purulent sputa, respectively. Among mucoid sputa, Gram positive bacterial growth occurred more commonly compared to Gram negative and Pseudomonas aeruginosa/Enterobacteriaceae (56%, 24%, 20%, respectively). In purulent sputa, Gram positives were found in 38% of cases, Gram negatives in 38%, and P. aeruginosa/Enterobacteriaceae in 24%. We evaluated whether functional impairment (FEV1) orientates as to the infectious etiology of exacerbations. Significant differences were observed in the distribution of pathogens. Gram negative and P. aeruginosa/Enterobacteriaceae were isolated more frequently in the sputum when FEV1 was <35%. Our study indicates that purulent sputum is strongly associated with bacterial growth in COPD exacerbations. Deepening sputum color (from yellowish to brownish) was associated with increased yield of Gram negative and P. aeruginosa/Enterobacteriaceae.