Within the intensive-care unit, non-invasive ventilation (NIV) can prevent the need for intubation and the mortality associated with severe episodes of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The aim of this study was to find whether the introduction of NIV, early after the admission on a general respiratory ward, was effective at reducing the need for intubation and the mortality associated with acute exacerbations of COPD. We did a prospective multicentre randomised controlled study comparing NIV with standard therapy in patients with mild to moderate acidosis. NIV was administered on the ward with a simple non-invasive ventilator and a standardised predefined protocol. Patients were recruited from 14 UK hospitals over 22 months. 236 patients were recruited, 118 received standard therapy alone and 118 additional NIV. The two groups had similar characteristics at enrolment. The use of NIV significantly reduced the need for intubation as defined by the failure criteria. 32/118 (27%) of the standard group failed compared with 18/118 (15%) of the NIV group (p=0.02). In-hospital mortality was also reduced by NIV, 24/118 (20%) died in the standard group compared with 12/118 (10%) in the NIV group (p=0.05). In both groups pH, PaCO2, and respiratory rate improved at 4 h (p<0.01). However, NIV led to a more rapid improvement in pH in the first hour (p=0.02) and a greater fall in respiratory rate at 4 h (p=0.035). The duration of breathlessness was also reduced by NIV (p=0.025). The early use of NIV for mildly and moderately acidotic patients with COPD in the general ward setting leads to more rapid improvement of physiological variables, a reduction in the need for invasive mechanical ventilation (with objective criteria), and a reduction in in-hospital mortality.