We carried out a comprehensive microbiological study of the upper and lower airways in patients with severe exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) requiring mechanical ventilation in order to describe microbial patterns and analyze their clinical significance. Quantitative cultures of tracheobronchial aspirates (TBAs), bronchoscopically retrieved protected specimen brush (PSB) and bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF) at admission to the ICU and after 72 h, as well as serology for bacteria and respiratory viruses were performed. Fifty patients (mean age 68 +/- 8, 46 males) were studied prospectively. Potentially pathogenic microorganisms (PPMs) and/or a positive serology were present in 36 of 50 (72%) patients, including 12 (33%) polymicrobial cases. Only six (12%) had no pathogen in any sample in the absence of antimicrobial pretreatment. Microbial patterns corresponded to community-acquired pathogens (Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, and Moraxella catarrhalis) in 19 of 34 (56%) and to gram-negative enteric bacilli (GNEB), Pseudomonas, and Stenotrophomonas spp. in 15 of 34 (44%) of isolates. Chlamydia pneumoniae and respiratory viruses were found in 18% and 16% of investigations, respectively. Repeated investigation after 72 h in 19 patients with PPMs in the initial investigation revealed eradication of virtually all isolates of community-acquired pathogens and GNEB but persistence of three of five Pseudomonas spp. and both Stenotrophomonas spp. as well as the emergence of new GNEB, Pseudomonas and Stenotrophomonas spp. Clinical parameters neither predicted the presence of PPMs nor of GNEB and Pseudomonas/Stenotrophomonas spp. Nevertheless, severe pneumonia attributable to initially isolated pathogens occurred in two patients with severe COPD exacerbation. We conclude that pathogens were more frequently present than previously reported. The rate of GNEB and Pseudomonas/Stenotrophomonas spp. isolates was high. The presence of pathogens was clinically unpredictable. Thus, in this population of patients with severe exacerbations of COPD, it may be advisable to obtain respiratory samples and to treat according to diagnostic results. Further studies are warranted to clarify this issue.