Acute exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are associated with a significant mortality, health and economic burden. Their diagnosis, assessment and management remain suboptimal and unchanged for decades. Recent clinical and translational studies revealed that the significant heterogeneity in mechanisms and outcomes of exacerbations could be resolved by grouping them etiologically. This is anticipated to lead to a better understanding of the biological processes that underlie each type of exacerbation and to allow the introduction of precision medicine interventions that could improve outcomes. This review summarises novel data on the diagnosis, phenotyping, targeted treatment and prevention of COPD exacerbations.