The optimal duration of antibiotic treatment for acute exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (AECOPD) is unknown. This study compared the outcome of treatment for 3 vs. 10 days with amoxycillin–clavulanic acid of hospitalised patients with AECOPD who had improved substantially after initial therapy for 3 days. Between November 2000 and December 2003, 56 patients with AECOPD were enrolled in the study. Unfortunately, because of the low inclusion rate, the trial was discontinued prematurely. Patients were treated with oral or intravenous amoxycillin–clavulanic acid. Patients who showed improvement after 72 h were randomised to receive oral amoxycillin–clavulanic acid 625 mg or placebo, four times daily for 7 days. The primary outcome measure of the study was clinical cure after 3 weeks and 3 months. Of 46 patients included in the final analysis, 21 were in the 3-day treatment group and 25 were in the 10-day treatment group. After 3 weeks, 16 (76%) of 21 patients in the 3-day treatment group were cured, compared with 20 (80%) of 25 in the 10-day treatment group (difference −3.8%; 95% CI −28 to 20). After 3 months, 13 (62%) of 21 patients were cured, compared with 14 (56%) of 25 (difference 5.9%; 95% CI −23 to 34). Microbiological success, symptom recovery, the use of corticosteroids, the duration of oxygen therapy and the length of hospital stay were comparable for both treatment groups. It was concluded that 3-day treatment with amoxycillin–clavulanic acid can be a safe and effective alternative to the standard 10-day treatment for hospitalised patients with AECOPD who have improved after initial therapy for 3 days.