An effective intracellular concentration of an antimicrobial agent is essential for therapy of infections caused by organisms of the Mycobacterium avium complex. We previously reported on the effect of the combination of azithromycin and tumor necrosis factor (TNF) against M. avium infection in macrophages. We now report that stimulation of macrophages either with recombinant human gamma interferon (IFN-gamma, 10(2) U/ml) or with recombinant human TNF-alpha (10(2) U/ml) resulted in an increase in the intracellular concentration of azithromycin by approximately 200% within 3 h, compared with the concentration in unstimulated macrophages. Infection of macrophages with M. avium complex led to a decrease in the uptake of [14C]azithromycin by infected cells, compared with that by uninfected controls. Stimulation of infected macrophages with recombinant IFN-gamma or TNF-alpha overcame the inhibitory effect associated with infection. These results suggest that the increased bactericidal activity of the TNF-alpha-azithromycin or IFN-gamma-azithromycin combination against M. avium is related to enhanced uptake of the antibiotic by the stimulated phagocyte.