Farmers are known to be at high risk for the development of occupational airway disease. The aim of this European study was to determine which airway symptoms predominate in different types of animal farmers (cattle, pigs, poultry, sheep) and to compare the prevalence of symptoms to the general population. A total of 6,156 randomly selected animal farmers in Denmark, Germany (Schleswig-Holstein, Niedersachsen), Switzerland, and Spain completed a questionnaire on respiratory symptoms and farming characteristics in 1995-1997. The prevalence of general respiratory symptoms was compared to the results of the European Community Respiratory Health Survey (ECRHS) obtained in the same regions. Pig farmers were at highest risk for the development of work-related symptoms. A significant dose-response relationship between daily hours worked inside animal houses and symptoms was established for pig and poultry farmers. Additionally, self-reported nasal allergies (odds ratio (95% confidence interval): 3.92 (3.26-4.71)) and nasal irritation during work (3.98 (3.35-4.73)) were shown to be associated with the development of chronic phlegm. The prevalence of wheezing, shortness of breath, asthma and nasal allergies was signficantly lower among all farmers in the age group 20-44 yrs than among the general population. However, the prevalence of usually bringing up phlegm in winter among farmers was significantly higher than in the general population (9.4 (8.3-10.5%) versus 7.5 (6.5-8.5%)). Individual factors have been shown to be related to the prevalence of chronic phlegm among farmers. Additionally, this study could support the hypothesis that farming could be negatively related to allergic diseases.