RATIONALE: Non-typeable Haemophilus influenzae (NTHi) is a common inhabitant of the human nasopharynx and upper airways that can cause opportunistic infections of the airway mucosa including bronchopulmonary infections in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It is clear that opportunistic infections contribute significantly to inflammatory exacerbations of COPD; however, there remains much to be learned regarding specific host and microbial determinants of persistence and/or clearance in this context. METHODS: In this study, we used a recently described ferret model for COPD, in which animals undergo chronic long-term exposure to cigarette smoke, to define host-pathogen interactions during COPD-related NTHi infections. RESULTS: NTHi bacteria colonised the lungs of smoke-exposed animals to a greater extent than controls, and elicited acute host inflammation and neutrophilic influx and activation, along with a significant increase in airway resistance and a decrease in inspiratory capacity consistent with inflammatory exacerbation; notably, these findings were not observed in air-exposed control animals. NTHi bacteria persisted within multicellular biofilm communities within the airway lumen, as evidenced by immunofluorescent detection of bacterial aggregates encased within a sialylated matrix as is typical of NTHi biofilms and differential bacterial gene expression consistent with the biofilm mode of growth. CONCLUSIONS: Based on these results, we conclude that acute infection with NTHi initiates inflammatory exacerbation of COPD disease. The data also support the widely held hypothesis that NTHi bacteria persist within multicellular biofilm communities in the lungs of patients with COPD.