Background: Bacterial colonisation in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) contributes to airway inflammation and modulates exacerbations. We assessed risk factors for bacterial colonisation in COPD.Methods: Patients with stable COPD consecutively recruited over 1 year gave consent to provide a sputum sample for microbiologic analysis. Bronchial colonisation by potentially pathogenic microorganisms (PPMs) was defined as the isolation of PPMs at concentrations of ≥102 colony-forming units (CFU)/mL on quantitative bacterial culture. Colonised patients were divided into high (>105 CFU/mL) or low (<105 CFU/mL) bacterial load.Results: A total of 119 patients (92.5% men, mean age 68 years, mean forced expiratory volume in one second [FEV1] [% predicted] 46.4%) were evaluated. Bacterial colonisation was demonstrated in 58 (48.7%) patients. Patients with and without bacterial colonisation showed significant differences in smoking history, cough, dyspnoea, COPD exacerbations and hospitalisations in the previous year, and sputum colour. Thirty-six patients (62% of those colonised) had a high bacterial load. More than 80% of the sputum samples with a dark yellow or greenish colour yielded PPMs in culture. In contrast, only 5.9% of white and 44.7% of light yellow sputum samples were positive (P < 0.001). Multivariate analysis showed an increased degree of dyspnoea (odds ratio [OR] = 2.63, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.53-5.09, P = 0.004) and a darker sputum colour (OR = 4.11, 95% CI 2.30-7.29, P < 0.001) as factors associated with the presence of PPMs in sputum.Conclusions: Almost half of our population of ambulatory moderate to very severe COPD patients were colonised with PPMs. Patients colonised present more severe dyspnoea, and a darker colour of sputum allows identification of individuals more likely to be colonised. © 2010 Miravitlles et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.