Somatising tendency, defined as a predisposition to worry about common somatic symptoms, is importantly associated with various aspects of health and health-related behaviour, including musculoskeletal pain and associated disability. To explore its epidemiological characteristics, and how it can be specified most efficiently, we analysed data from an international longitudinal study. A baseline questionnaire, which included questions from the Brief Symptom Inventory about seven common symptoms, was completed by 12,072 participants aged 20-59 from 46 occupational groups in 18 countries (response rate 70%). The seven symptoms were all mutually associated (odds ratios for pairwise associations 3.4 to 9.3), and each contributed to a measure of somatising tendency that exhibited an exposure-response relationship both with multi-site pain (prevalence rate ratios up to six), and also with sickness absence for non-musculoskeletal reasons. In most participants, the level of somatising tendency was little changed when reassessed after a mean interval of 14 months (75% having a change of 0 or 1 in their symptom count), although the specific symptoms reported at follow-up often differed from those at baseline. Somatising tendency was more common in women than men, especially at older ages, and varied markedly across the 46 occupational groups studied, with higher rates in South and Central America. It was weakly associated with smoking, but not with level of education. Our study supports the use of questions from the Brief Symptom Inventory as a method for measuring somatising tendency, and suggests that in adults of working age, it is a fairly stable trait.