The mechanism of clinical effectiveness of low-dose and long-term erythromycin (EM) treatment for diffuse panbronchiolitis, sinobronchial syndrome, and associated otitis media with effusion was investigated by studying the effects of EM on tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) production by cultured human monocytes stimulated with lipopolysaccharide. At concentrations of 0.1 microgram/mL or more, EM inhibited TNF-alpha release from human monocytes stimulated by lipopolysaccharide in a dose-dependent manner. Of the other macrolides tested, roxithromycin, an EM derivative, also showed significant inhibition of TNF-alpha production, whereas josamycin failed to inhibit TNF-alpha release from monocytes. Nonmacrolidic drugs such as minocycline hydrochloride, ofloxacin, or penicillin G had no significant effect on TNF-alpha production. These results suggest that the clinical improvement of chronic respiratory diseases by EM may depend on the suppression of production of inflammatory cytokines such as TNF-alpha.