BACKGROUND: Frequent exacerbations induce a high burden to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). We investigated the course of exacerbations in the published COSMIC study that investigated the effects of 1-year withdrawal of fluticasone after a 3-month run-in treatment period with salmeterol/fluticasone in patients with COPD. METHODS: In 373 patients, we evaluated diary cards for symptoms, Peak Expiratory Flow (PEF), and salbutamol use and assessed their course during exacerbations. RESULTS: There were 492 exacerbations in 224 patients. The level of symptoms of cough, sputum, dyspnea and nocturnal awakening steadily increased from 2 weeks prior to exacerbation, with a sharp rise during the last week. Symptoms of cough, sputum, and dyspnea reverted to baseline values at different rates (after 4, 4, and 7 weeks respectively), whereas symptoms of nocturnal awakening were still increased after eight weeks. The course of symptoms was similar around a first and second exacerbation. Increases in symptoms and salbutamol use and decreases in PEF were associated with a higher risk to develop an exacerbation, but with moderate predictive values, the areas under the receiver operating curves ranging from 0.63 to 0.70. CONCLUSIONS: Exacerbations of COPD are associated with increased symptoms that persist for weeks and the course is very similar between a first and second exacerbation. COPD exacerbations are preceded by increased symptoms and salbutamol use and lower PEF, yet predictive values are too low to warrant daily use in clinical practice.