Activated mast cells generate multiple cytokines but it is not known if these can be differentially regulated by pharmacological agents. We report here that the glucocorticoid dexamethasone (DEX) preferentially inhibited Ag-induced expression of IL-4 and IL-6 mRNA relative to TNF-alpha mRNA in RBL-2H3 cells. Likewise, the drug more readily inhibited release of IL-4 than TNF-alpha protein. SB203580, an inhibitor of p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK), enhanced Ag-induced TNF-alpha mRNA expression without affecting IL-4 or IL-6 mRNA. At the protein level, SB203580 exerted little effect on TNF-alpha release but inhibited IL-4 release; notably, the ratio of TNF-alpha : IL-4 increased markedly with the concentration of SB203580, confirming the differential regulation of these cytokines. PD98059, an inhibitor of MAPK kinase (MEK), a component of the p44/42 MAPK pathway, partially inhibited Ag-induced expression of mRNA for all three cytokines while cyclosporin A inhibited Ag-induced IL-4 and IL-6 mRNA more readily than TNF-alpha mRNA. Ag activation of the cells led to phosphorylation of p38 and p44/42 MAPK but this was not influenced by DEX. In conclusion, mast cell cytokines can be differentially regulated pre- and post-translationally by DEX and SB203580 but there does not appear to be a direct mechanistic link between the actions of these two drugs.