BACKGROUND: Soluble triggering receptor expressed on myeloid cells 1 (sTREM-1) is an activating receptor on inflammatory cells upregulated by microbial products. Elevated levels of sTREM-1 have been associated with the diagnosis and prognosis of patients with sepsis, severe pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). OBJECTIVES: The aim of this study was to define the role of sTREM-1 in acute exacerbations of COPD (AE-COPD) and to investigate the ability of sTREM-1 to differentiate between infectious triggers of AE-COPD. METHODS: Smokers without COPD (SM), patients with stable COPD (sCOPD) and patients with AE-COPD were prospectively recruited. sTREM-1 levels were determined by ELISA in serum. Potentially pathogenic bacteria were analyzed by sputum culture, and polymerase chain reaction was used to determine the presence of respiratory viruses. RESULTS: One hundred and ninety-five subjects were included: 64 sCOPD patients, 118 AE-COPD patients and 13 SM. In 62 (52.6%) AE-COPD patients, a respiratory pathogen was detected. Serum levels of sTREM-1 were barely detectable in SM but were significantly increased in patients with sCOPD [97.5 (interquartile value 76.6) pg/ml] and AE-COPD [110.9 (98.5) pg/ml; p<0.001]. There was no significant difference in sTREM-1 between sCOPD and AE-COPD (p=0.277). However, in AE-COPD, sTREM-1 was significantly lower in patients with virus detection [87.5 (97.3) pg/ml] compared to those without [120.3 (99.7) pg/ml; p=0.015]. No difference was found in AE-COPD patients with or without bacterial detection. CONCLUSIONS: The present study shows an increase in sTREM-1 in patients with COPD compared to SM but not in AE-COPD compared to sCOPD. Viral exacerbations showed significantly lower sTREM-1 levels than non-viral exacerbations.