Background: Although women with severe non-allergic asthma may represent a substantial proportion of adults with asthma in clinical practice, gender differences in the incidence of allergic and non-allergic asthma have been little investigated in the general population. Methods: Gender differences in asthma prevalence, reported diagnosis and incidence were investigated in 9091 men and women randomly selected from the general population and followed up after 8-10 years as part of the European Community Respiratory Health Survey. The protocol included assessment of bronchial responsiveness, IgE specific to four common allergens and skin tests to nine allergens. Results: Asthma was 20% more frequent in women than in men over the age of 35 years. Possible under-diagnosis of asthma appeared to be particularly frequent among non-atopic individuals, but was as frequent in women as in men. The follow-up of subjects without asthma at baseline showed a higher incidence of asthma in women than in men (HR 1.94; 95% CI 1.40 to 2.68), which was not explained by differences in smoking, obesity or lung function. More than 60% of women and 30% of men with new-onset asthma were non-atopic. The incidence of non-allergic asthma was higher in women than in men throughout all the reproductive years (HR 3.51; 95% CI 2.21 to 5.58), whereas no gender difference was observed for the incidence of allergic asthma. Conclusions: This study shows that female sex is an independent risk factor for non-allergic asthma, and stresses the need for more careful assessment of possible non-allergic asthma in clinical practice, in men and women.