There are little data describing noncellular changes in bronchial inflammation during exacerbations of chronic bronchitis. The relationship between sputum colour and airway inflammation at presentation has been assessed during an exacerbation in patients with chronic bronchitis and a primary care diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Sputum myeloperoxidase, neutrophil elastase, leukotriene B4 (LTB4), interleukin-8 (IL-8), sol:serum albumin ratio and serum C-reactive protein were measured in patients presenting with an exacerbation and mucoid (n = 27) or purulent sputum (n = 42). Mucoid exacerbations were associated with little bronchial or systemic inflammation at presentation, and sputum bacteriology was similar to that obtained in the stable state. Purulent exacerbations were associated with marked bronchial and systemic inflammation (p < 0.025 for all features) and positive sputum cultures (90%). Resolution was related to a significant reduction in LTB4 (p < 0.01), but no change in IL-8, suggesting that LTB4 may be more important in neutrophil recruitment in these mild, purulent exacerbations. In the stable state, IL-8 remained higher in patients who had experienced a purulent exacerbation (2p < 0.02). The presented results indicate that exacerbations of chronic bronchitis, defined by sputum colour, differ in the degree of bronchial and systemic inflammation. Purulent exacerbations are related to bacterial infection, and are associated with increased neutrophilic inflammation and increased leukotriene B4 concentrations.