The effects of cAMP-elevating agents on antigen-induced IL-5 (interleukin-5) messenger RNA expression and protein production were examined in vitro in an antigen-driven system of splenocytes from ovalbumin sensitized BALB/c mice. IL-5 production was inhibited by rolipram, a type 4 phosphodiesterase (PDE4) inhibitor, dose-dependently (maximally at 10(-5) M) and by dibutyryl-cAMP (db-cAMP) (3 x 10(-4) M), but not by the type 3 and type 5 PDE inhibitors milrinone and zaprinast (10(-5) M), respectively. Forskolin (10(-5) M), an adenylate cyclase activator, was noninhibitory alone but potentiated inhibition by rolipram. Inhibition was associated with a decrease in IL-5 mRNA expression. Cycloheximide 10(-6) M and actinomycin 2 micrograms/ml abolished IL-5 production and mRNA expression. We conclude that in splenocytes from sensitized mice, IL-5 production and mRNA expression depend on antigen stimulation. The time course of IL-5 protein production is closely related to IL-5 mRNA expression and depends on de novo protein synthesis. db-cAMP and a selective PDE4 inhibitor, alone or in combination with forskolin, are the only cAMP-elevating agents that dose-dependently inhibited antigen-induced IL-5 mRNA expression and protein production. These results are in agreement with in vivo inhibition by a selective PDE4 inhibitor of antigen-induced pulmonary eosinophil infiltration and IL-5 production in sensitized mice, and they suggest that PDE4 inhibitors have potential for treating respiratory allergy.