The objective of this longitudinal study was to estimate the incidence rate of asthma, and to compare the incidence between subjects with or without baseline reporting of certain respiratory symptoms. A follow-up of the random population samples in the European Respiratory Health Survey (ECRHS) in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Estonia was conducted in 1999-2001, in a population aged 30-54 yrs at follow-up (n=14,731). Asthma was defined as reporting either asthma or physician-diagnosed asthma, and a reported year when asthma symptoms were first noticed. Incidence rates, incidence rate ratios and hazard ratios were calculated with 95% confidence intervals. The incidence rate of asthma was 2.2 cases per 1,000 person-yrs. The incidence was higher among females (2.9 cases.1,000 person-yrs(-1)) than among males (1.5 cases.1,000 person-yrs(-1)). When subjects with baseline reporting of wheezing were excluded, the incidence rate decreased to 1.7 cases.1,000 person-yrs(-1), with a further decrease to 1.5 cases.1,000 person-yrs(-1) after exclusion of subjects with wheezing, nocturnal dyspnoea, chest tightness and cough. There was a strong association between onset of asthma and wheezing at baseline. In this prospective, population-based study, the incidence rate of asthma in the whole population sample ranged 1.5-2.2.1,000 person-yrs(-1), with a higher incidence range among females. The incidence was dependent on the extent to which subjects with respiratory symptoms were excluded from follow-up. Hence, for comparability between studies, the exclusion criteria in the follow-up population must be stated.