Background: Acute exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (AECOPD) carry significant morbidity and mortality. AECOPD treatment remains limited. High molecular weight hyaluronan (HMW-HA) is a glycosaminoglycan sugar, which is a physiological constituent of the lung extracellular matrix and has notable anti-inflammatory and hydrating properties. Research question: We hypothesized that inhaled HMW-HA will improve outcomes in AECOPD. Methods: We conducted a single center, randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study to investigate the effect of inhaled HMW-HA in patients with severe AECOPD necessitating non-invasive positive-pressure ventilation (NIPPV). Primary endpoint was time until liberation from NIPPV. Results: Out of 44 screened patients, 41 were included in the study (21 for placebo and 20 for HMW-HA). Patients treated with HMW-HA had significantly shorter duration of NIPPV. HMW-HA treated patients also had lower measured peak airway pressures on the ventilator and lower systemic inflammation markers after liberation from NIPPV. In vitro testing showed that HMW-HA significantly improved mucociliary transport in air–liquid interface cultures of primary bronchial cells from COPD patients and healthy primary cells exposed to cigarette smoke extract. Interpretation: Inhaled HMW-HA shortens the duration of respiratory failure and need for non-invasive ventilation in patients with AECOPD. Beneficial effects of HMW-HA on mucociliary clearance and inflammation may account for some of the effects (NCT02674880, www.clinicaltrials.gov).