The aim of the present study was to assess circulating levels of VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor), a biomarker with prognostic significance in cardiovascular disease, and markers of systemic inflammation in patients with stable and exacerbated COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Lung function parameters, arterial blood gas analysis and circulating levels of VEGF, IL-6 (interleukin-6), TNF-alpha (tumour necrosis factor-alpha), CRP (C-reactive protein), fibrinogen and the peripheral blood neutrophil cell count were assessed in 30 patients on admission to the hospital for acute exacerbation of COPD, in 30 age-, gender- and BMI (body mass index)-matched patients with stable COPD, and 30 matched controls with normal lung function. Patients with acute exacerbated COPD had higher circulating concentrations of VEGF (P<0.001), IL-6 (P<0.05) and CRP (P<0.01) and an increased blood neutrophil cell count (P<0.05) compared with patients with stable COPD and healthy controls. VEGF levels in exacerbated COPD correlated with systemic inflammatory markers, such as CRP (r=0.61, P<0.005), IL-6 (r=0.46; P<0.01) and fibrinogen (r=0.39, P<0.05). In patients with stable COPD, there was a significant relationship between circulating VEGF levels and the percentage of the predicted FEV(1) (forced expiratory volume in 1 s) (r=0.47, P<0.01). Recovery from the exacerbation resulted in a significant decrease in both circulating VEGF levels and markers of systemic inflammation. In conclusion, circulating levels of VEGF and markers of systemic inflammation are up-regulated in patients with acute exacerbated COPD and decrease after recovery from the exacerbation.