Proteases have been shown to degrade airway mucin proteins and to damage the epithelium impairing mucociliary clearance. There are increased proteases in the COPD airway but changes in protease-antiprotease balance and mucin degradation have not been investigated during the course of a COPD exacerbation. We hypothesized that increased protease levels would lead to mucin degradation in acute COPD exacerbations. Methods: We measured neutrophil elastase (NE) and alpha 1 protease inhibitor (A1-PI) levels using immunoblotting, and conducted protease inhibitor studies, zymograms, elastin substrate assays and cigarette smoke condensate experiments to evaluate the stability of the gel-forming mucins, MUC5AC and MUC5B, before and 5-6 weeks after an acute pulmonary exacerbation of COPD (n=9 subjects). Results: Unexpectedly, mucin concentration and mucin stability were highest at the start of the exacerbation and restored to baseline after 6 weeks. Consistent with these data, immunoblots and zymograms confirmed decreased NE concentration and activity and increased A1-PI at the start of the exacerbation. After recovery there was an increase in NE activity and a decrease in A1-PI levels. In vitro, protease inhibitor studies demonstrated that serine proteases played a key role in mucin degradation. Mucin stability was further enhanced upon treating with cigarette smoke condensate (CSC). Conclusion: There appears to be rapid consumption of secreted proteases due to an increase in antiproteases, at the start of a COPD exacerbation. This leads to increased mucin gel stability which may be important in trapping and clearing infectious and inflammatory mediators, but this may also contribute acutely to mucus retention.