Diagnosing bacterial infection (BI) remains a challenge for the attending physician. An ex vivo infection model based on human fixed polymorphonuclear neutrophils (PMNs) gives an autofluorescence signal that differs significantly between stimulated and unstimulated cells. We took advantage of this property for use in an in vivo pneumonia mouse model and in patients hospitalized with bacterial pneumonia. A 2-fold decrease was observed in autofluorescence intensity for cytospined PMNs from broncho-alveolar lavage (BAL) in the pneumonia mouse model and a 2.7-fold decrease was observed in patients with pneumonia when compared with control mice or patients without pneumonia, respectively. This optical method provided an autofluorescence mean intensity cut-off, allowing for easy diagnosis of BI. Originally set up on a confocal microscope, the assay was also effective using a standard epifluorescence microscope. Assessing the autofluorescence of PMNs provides a fast, simple, cheap and reliable method optimizing the efficiency and the time needed for early diagnosis of severe infections. Rationalized therapeutic decisions supported by the results from this method can improve the outcome of patients suspected of having an infection.