Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) embraces a number of pathological processes including chronic bronchitis, chronic bronchiolitis and emphysema. The chronic and progressive course of COPD is often aggravated by short periods of increasing symptoms. Respiratory tract infections (RTIs) are the most common causes of COPD exacerbations. Detection and enumeration of respiratory bacteria are important techniques in diagnosing RTIs and in the validation of new treatment methods. We describe here the development and evaluation of real-time PCR assays for the simultaneous direct detection and quantification of a range of respiratory bacteria in individuals with COPD during stable periods and during acute exacerbations of the disease. Sputum samples from 30 subjects in a COPD study were analysed, and results compared with the current gold standard of culture. Real-time PCR assays proved highly sensitive, with no cross-reactivity with other species. The prevalence of bacteria detected by real-time PCR compared with that by culture was substantially higher for Streptococcus pneumoniae, Staphylococcus aureus, Haemophilus spp. and Moraxella catarrhalis. Multiple pathogens were also found with real-time PCR but were not detected by culture. This study demonstrates the potential of such methods in the detection and enumeration of respiratory bacteria.