The historical change in the natural course of diffuse panbronchiolitis (DPB), a fatal disorder of the airways, following the introduction of erythromycin in its treatment has focused attention of researchers on the anti-inflammatory properties of macrolides. Chronic inflammation of the airways accompanied by infiltration by neutrophils and overproduction of mucus and pro-inflammatory cytokines is observed in bronchial asthma, cystic fibrosis (CF), DPB, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and bronchiectasis. The airways of these patients are often colonised by mucoid Pseudomonas aeruginosa attached to epithelium by a biofilm. Bacteria intercommunicate for biofilm formation by a system of lactones known as quorum sensing. Macrolides inhibit mobility and quorum sensing of P. aeruginosa; they also decrease production of mucus by epithelial cells and biosynthesis of pro-inflammatory cytokines from monocytes and epithelial cells by inhibiting nuclear factor-kappaB. Large, randomised clinical trials for the management of these disorders with macrolides are not available, with the sole exception of four trials denoting benefit following long-term administration of azithromycin in patients with CF. That benefit is consistent with an increase in forced expiratory volume in 1s (FEV(1)) and a decrease in the rate of bacterial exacerbations. Studies with small numbers of patients with COPD revealed attenuation of the inflammatory reaction by macrolides. Experimental studies of Gram-negative sepsis have shown considerable attenuation of the systemic inflammatory response following intravenous administration of clarithromycin. Results of the effects of clarithromycin in patients with ventilator-associated pneumonia and sepsis in a large, randomised study of 200 patients are awaited.