The effects of the macrolide antimicrobial agents azithromycin, clarithromycin, erythromycin and roxithromycin on the prooxidative activity of stimulated human neutrophils have been investigated in vitro. Superoxide generation by activated neutrophils was measured by lucigenin-enhanced chemiluminescence. At the concentrations used (2.5-80 micrograms/ml) none of the test agents was cytotoxic, nor did they possess superoxide-scavenging properties. Treatment of neutrophils with all 4 macrolides was accompanied by dose-related inhibition of superoxide production by cells activated with FMLP or the calcium ionophore (A23187), while the responses activated by phorbol myristate acetate (PMA) or opsonized zymosan were minimally affected. The anti-oxidative interactions of roxithromycin with FMLP-activated neutrophils were neutralized by pretreatment of the cells with low, non-cytotoxic concentrations (0.5 microgram/ml) of the prooxidative, proinflammatory bioactive phospholipids, lysophosphatidylcholine (LPC), platelet-activating factor (PAF) and lyso-PAF (LPAF). Using an assay of membrane-stabilizing activity, the macrolides antagonized the membrane-disruptive effects of LPC, PAF and LPAF, without affecting enzymes involved in their synthesis. These membrane-stabilizing interactions of macrolides with neutrophils may counteract the proinflammatory, prooxidative activity of several bioactive lipids which have been implicated in the pathogenesis of bronchial asthma.