The effects of the bioactive phospholipids (PL), platelet-activating factor (PAF), lyso-PAF, and lysophosphatidylcholine (LPC) on the beat frequency and structural integrity of human ciliated respiratory epithelium were studied in vitro, in the presence or absence of polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMNL), the antimicrobial agents, roxithromycin, clarithromycin, and azithromycin and the antioxidative enzymes catalase and superoxide dismutase (SOD). All three PL caused dose-dependent slowing of ciliary beat frequency (CBF) and epithelial damage (ED) at concentrations > or = 1 microgram/ml, which were unaffected by inclusion of the antimicrobial agents and antioxidative enzymes. When epithelial strips were exposed to the combination of PMNL and PL, there was significant potentiation of ciliary dysfunction and ED, which was ameliorated by pretreatment of the PMNL with the antimicrobial agents or by inclusion of catalase, but not SOD. These results demonstrate that LPC, PAF, and lyso-PAF cause epithelial damage by direct mechanisms which are oxidant-independent, as well as by indirect mechanisms involving phagocyte-derived reactive oxidants. Macrolides and azalide antimicrobial agents may have beneficial effects on airway inflammation in asthma and microbial infections by protecting ciliated epithelium against oxidative damage inflicted by PL-sensitized phagocytes.