Exacerbations are a frequent event in the evolution of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients. Individuals with COPD have a mean of 1-3 episodes per year, some of which lead to hospital admission and may even be a cause of death. The importance of COPD exacerbations has become increasingly apparent due to the impact these episodes have on the natural history of disease. It is now known that frequent exacerbations can adversely affect health-related quality of life and short- and long-term pulmonary function. Optimising treatment for stable COPD will help to reduce exacerbations. Long-acting bronchodilators, alone or combined with inhaled corticosteroids, have demonstrated efficacy in reducing the rate of exacerbations in patients with COPD. Other innovative approaches are being investigated, such as the long-term use of macrolides or the use of antibiotics in an effort to suppress bronchial colonisation and consequent exacerbations. Other drugs, such as mucolytics and immunomodulators, have recently provided positive results. Non-pharmacological interventions such as rehabilitation, self-management plans and the maintenance of high levels of physical activity in daily life are also useful strategies to prevent exacerbations in patients with COPD and should be implemented in regular clinical practice.