BACKGROUND Current guidelines for management of patients hospitalised with acute exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) recommend that clinical decisions, including escalation to assisted ventilation, be informed by an estimate of the patients' likely postdischarge quality of life. There is little evidence to inform predictions of outcome in terms of quality of life, psychological well-being and functional status. Undue nihilism might lead to denial of potentially life-saving therapy, while undue optimism might prolong suffering when alternative palliation would be more appropriate. This study aimed to detail longitudinal changes in quality of life following hospitalisation for acute exacerbations of COPD. METHODS We prospectively recruited two cohorts (exacerbations requiring assisted ventilation during admission and exacerbations not ventilated). Admission clinical data, and mortality and readmission details were collected. Quality of life, psychological well-being and functional status were formally assessed over the subsequent 12 months. Time-adjusted mean change in quality of life was examined. RESULTS 183 patients (82 ventilated; 101 not ventilated) were recruited. On average, overall quality of life improved by a clinically important amount in those not ventilated and did not decline in ventilated patients. Both groups showed clinically important improvements in respiratory symptoms and an individual's sense of control over their condition, despite the tendency for functional status to decline. CONCLUSIONS On average, postdischarge quality of life improved in non-ventilated and did not decline in ventilated patients. Certain quality of life domains (ie, symptoms and mastery) improved significantly. Better understanding of longitudinal change in postdischarge quality of life should help to inform decision-making.