The literature of acute exacerbation of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is fast expanding. This review focuses on several aspects of acute exacerbation of COPD (AECOPD) including epidemiology, diagnosis and management. COPD poses a major health and economic burden in the Asia-Pacific region, as it does worldwide. Triggering factors of AECOPD include infectious (bacteria and viruses) and environmental (air pollution and meteorological effect) factors. Disruption in the dynamic balance between the 'pathogens' (viral and bacterial) and the normal bacterial communities that constitute the lung microbiome likely contributes to the risk of exacerbations. The diagnostic approach to AECOPD varies based on the clinical setting and severity of the exacerbation. After history and examination, a number of investigations may be useful, including oximetry, sputum culture, chest X-ray and blood tests for inflammatory markers. Arterial blood gases should be considered in severe exacerbations, to characterize respiratory failure. Depending on the severity, the acute management of AECOPD involves use of bronchodilators, steroids, antibiotics, oxygen and noninvasive ventilation. Hospitalization may be required, for severe exacerbations. Nonpharmacological interventions including disease-specific self-management, pulmonary rehabilitation, early medical follow-up, home visits by respiratory health workers, integrated programmes and telehealth-assisted hospital at home have been studied during hospitalization and shortly after discharge in patients who have had a recent AECOPD. Pharmacological approaches to reducing risk of future exacerbations include long-acting bronchodilators, inhaled steroids, mucolytics, vaccinations and long-term macrolides. Further studies are needed to assess the cost-effectiveness of these interventions in preventing COPD exacerbations.