Despite being regularly exposed to particulate matter during breathing, which contains bacteria from the commensal flora in the nasopharynx and from the environment, the healthy lung is kept sterile by efficient defence mechanisms. Bacterial infections of the respiratory mucosa represent a dynamic interaction, to which both host and bacterial factors contribute. The abnormal host defences associated with chronic respiratory infections (e.g. cystic fibrosis and other forms of bronchiectasis) serve to emphasize their permissive role. The bacteria that cause bronchial infections possess a wide array of potential virulence factors that contribute to their pathogenicity. Many of these factors influence the mucociliary system, an important first-line defence mechanism. The multiplication, spread and persistence of bacteria within the bronchial lumen, and consequent damage to the epithelium, stimulates a chronic inflammatory response, which also impairs mucociliary clearance and damages lung tissue. A greater understanding of host-bacterial interactions during mucosal infections should in the future lead to the development of new therapies and treatment strategies.