Macrolide antibiotics decrease proinflammatory cytokine production in airway cells from subjects with chronic airway inflammation. However, in subjects with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, short-term azithromycin (AZM) therapy causes a transient early increase in the blood neutrophil oxidative burst followed by a decrease in inflammatory markers with longer administration. We studied the effects of clarithromycin (CAM) and AZM on proinflammatory cytokine production from normal human bronchial epithelial (NHBE) cells. CAM decreased IL-8 over the first 6 h and then significantly increased interleukin (IL)-8 at 12-72 h after exposure (P < 0.0001). AZM also increased IL-8 at 24 and 48 h, and CAM increased granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor at 48 h. In the presence of LPS, both CAM and AZM dose-dependently increased IL-8 secretion over 24 h, but after 5 days of exposure to 10 microg/ml CAM there is suppression of IL-8 (P < 0.001). PD-98059, an inhibitor of MAP kinase/ERK kinase, inhibited CAM-induced IL-8 (P < 0.0001) and GM-CSF (P < 0.01) release. The p38 MAP kinase inhibitor SB-203580 increased CAM-induced IL-8 release (P < 0.001), and the c-jun NH2-terminal kinase inhibitor SP-600125 had no effect on IL-8. At 120 min and 6 h, CAM increased phospho-ERK1/2 (pERK) but not phospho-p38 or phospho-JNK. Over the first 90 min, CAM at 10 microg/ml inhibited pERK and then increased pERK in parallel with measured IL-8 secretion. After daily CAM exposure for 5 days, both IL-8 and pERK returned to baseline. The p38 MAP kinase inhibitor, SB-203580 increased ERK phosphorylation and IL-8 secretion. These results suggest that macrolide antibiotics can differentially modulate proinflammatory cytokine secretion in NHBE cells, in part through ERK.