Interaction between vascular cell adhesion molecule-1 (VCAM-1) on endothelial cells and alpha 4 integrins on leukocytes is thought to mediate the selective recruitment of eosinophils and lymphocytes that occurs in allergic diseases. IL-4 is associated with allergic conditions, and it has been shown to selectively increase expression of VCAM-1 on endothelial cells in vivo, suggesting that it could be responsible for VCAM-1 expression in allergic disease. Using a combination of immunofluorescence, flow cytometry, and Northern analysis, we compared the effect of TNF-alpha and IL-4 on VCAM-1 expression. TNF-alpha is also associated with allergic diseases, and it rapidly increases transcription of the VCAM-1 gene. The effect of IL-4 was relatively modest with prolonged kinetics: VCAM-1 was not detected until 72 h after treatment with IL-4. However, when TNF-alpha and IL-4 were combined, there was a synergistic increase in VCAM-1 expression and a dramatic prolongation of the appearance of VCAM-1 on the cell surface. This synergy results from a combination of transcriptional activation by TNF-alpha and the stabilization of resulting transcripts by IL-4. We propose that IL-4 allows subthreshold concentrations of TNF-alpha (concentrations that would not normally activate expression of adhesion molecules on the endothelium) to selectively increase VCAM-1 expression and to prolong its appearance on the surface of cells in allergic disease.