Chronic bronchitis is common among smokers, often together with recurrent infectious exacerbations. Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae are the pathogens traditionally considered most important. N-acetylcysteine (NAC) treatment has been shown to reduce the number of infectious exacerbations in patients with chronic bronchitis. The mechanism behind this is unknown. We attempted to characterize the intrabronchial bacterial flora in patients with chronic bronchitis in an infection-free interval, and to determine whether pharmacological and immunological factors effected the bacterial occurrence. Twenty two smokers with non-obstructive chronic bronchitis, 19 smokers with chronic bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and 14 healthy nonsmokers underwent bronchoscopy. To obtain uncontaminated intrabronchial samples, a protected specimen brush was used. Quantitative bacterial cultures and virus isolations were performed. Significantly positive bacterial cultures (> 1,000 colony-forming units (cfu).ml-1) were found only in the patients. S. pneumoniae and H. influenzae were found in five patients, and only in the patients without NAC treatment. The most common bacterium was alpha-haemolytic streptococcus. Negative cultures were more common in the healthy controls. Of the various factors examined, only NAC medication had an influence on bacterial numbers. Significantly fewer patients with NAC medication had positive cultures (3 out of 16) than in the group of patients without NAC therapy (15 out of 21). Our results confirm that chronic bronchitis in smokers leads to increased intrabronchial bacterial colonization. We could also confirm that 1,000 cfu.ml-1 is an adequate cut-off level for significant bacterial growth when using the protected specimen brush. NAC medication was associated with low bacterial numbers.