Our understanding of the etiology, pathogenesis and consequences of acute exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) has increased substantially in the last decade. Several new lines of evidence demonstrate that bacterial isolation from sputum during acute exacerbation in many instances reflects a cause-effect relationship. Placebo-controlled antibiotic trials in exacerbations of COPD demonstrate significant clinical benefits of antibiotic treatment in moderate and severe episodes. However, in the multitude of antibiotic comparison trials, the choice of antibiotics does not appear to affect the clinical outcome, which can be explained by several methodological limitations of these trials. Recently, comparison trials with nontraditional end-points have shown differences among antibiotics in the treatment of exacerbations of COPD. Observational studies that have examined clinical outcome of exacerbations have repeatedly demonstrated certain clinical characteristics to be associated with treatment failure or early relapse. Optimal antibiotic selection for exacerbations has therefore incorporated quantifying the risk for a poor outcome of the exacerbation and choosing antibiotics differently for low risk and high risk patients, reserving the broader spectrum drugs for the high risk patients. Though improved outcomes in exacerbations with antibiotic choice based on such risk stratification has not yet been demonstrated in prospective controlled trials, this approach takes into account concerns of disease heterogeneity, antibiotic resistance and judicious antibiotic use in exacerbations.