The recognition of a reversible cause for acute respiratory failure (ARF) is frequently difficult in patients with severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). We sought to identify clinical findings present at the time of tracheal intubation that were associated with successful weaning and short-term survival among a population of male veterans with severe COPD. Over a 5-year period (1987 to 1991), 39 episodes of ARF requiring mechanical ventilation (MV) were identified in 33 men with severe COPD. All the patients had a baseline FEV1 < 1 L. Univariate analysis suggested a higher serum albumin level and absence of pulmonary infiltrates on chest radiography distinguished survivors (weaned from MV for 72 h) from nonsurvivors (died while undergoing MV or within 72 h of weaning). Multivariate analysis revealed the absence of pulmonary infiltrates on initial chest radiography was the strongest correlate for survival. To examine the significance of these correlates in ARF complicating milder COPD, 19 patients with lesser degrees of chronic airways obstruction and ARF were also studied. Unlike patients with severe COPD, the presence or absence of pulmonary infiltrates on chest radiography was not correlated with survival in patients with milder chronic airways obstruction. Analyzing all COPD patients with ARF, the mortality risk associated with the presence of pulmonary infiltrates on chest radiography increased dramatically with declining baseline lung function. Mortality risk ratio analysis revealed the greatest likelihood for survival was predicted by a higher baseline FEV1 and the absence of pulmonary infiltrates on chest radiography. The extent of baseline airways obstruction alone was not correlated with short-term survival in either group. These observations suggest that in the subset of patients with severe COPD and ARF, the presence of pulmonary infiltrates on chest radiography at the time of tracheal intubation may be associated with less likelihood for survival. An exacerbation of COPD may infrequently be the terminal illness in these patients.