Antibiotics can interact directly with the immune system. This is a review of the immunomodulating effects of antibiotics. The Medline database on CD-ROM was searched for the years 1987 to 1994 using the following search string: "thesaurus explode antibiotics/all AND (thesaurus explode immune-system/drug effects OR thesaurus immune-tolerance/drug effects)." Aspects of the immune system studied were aspects of phagocyte functions: phagocytosis and killing, and chemotaxis and aspects of lymphocyte functions: lymphocyte proliferation, cytokine production, antibody production, delayed hypersensitivity and natural killer-cell activity. In order to quantify and to compare immunomodulatory properties of antibiotics we calculated an "immune index," defined as: number of positive statements--number of negative statements/total number of statements. Concerning phagocytosis, positive effects were observed for cefodizime, imipenem, cefoxitin, amphotericin B and clindamycin and negative effects for erythromycin, roxithromycin, cefotaxime, tetracycline, ampicillin and gentamicin. Clindamycin, cefoxition and imipenem induce enhancement of chemotaxis, whereas cefotazime, rifampicin and teicoplanin decrease chemotaxis. Regarding lymphocyte proliferation, cefodizime has the strongest stimulating effect, whereas tetracycline has the strongest negative effect. Except for erythromycin and amphotericin B the number of statements reported is too small to be conclusive for the interpretation of effects on cytokine production. Erythromycin and amphotericin B appear to stimulate cytokine production. As to antibody production, cefodizime has the strongest positive effect, whereas josamycin, rifampicin and tetracycline have marked negative effects. For delayed hypersensitivity and the natural killer-cell activity the number of statements is too small for any single antibiotic to be conclusive. There are three markedly immuno-enhancing antibiotics (imipenem, cefodizime and clindamycin) and eight markedly immuno-depressing antibiotics (erythromycin, roxithromycin, cefotaxime, tetracycline, rifampicin, gentamicin, teicoplanin and ampicillin).