The aim of this investigation was to study the geographic variation in sleep complaints and to identify risk factors for sleep disturbances in three European countries: Iceland (Reykjavik), Sweden (Uppsala and Göteborg) and Belgium (Antwerp). The study involved a random population of 2,202 subjects (age 20-45 years) who participated in the European Community Respiratory Health Survey. The subjects answered a questionnaire on sleep disturbances. Participants in Iceland and Sweden also estimated their sleep habits and sleep times during a period of 1 week in a sleep diary. Habitual (> or = 3/week) difficulties inducing sleep (DIS) were reported by 6-9% and early morning awakenings by 5-6% of the subjects. The estimated number of awakenings and the prevalence of nightmares was significantly lower in Reykjavik. Participants in Reykjavik went to bed at night and woke in the morning approximately 1 hour later than participants at the Swedish centers (p < 0.001). Symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux (GER) were associated with DIS (odds ratio [OR] = 2.7), nightmares (OR = 4.4), longer sleep latency and frequent nocturnal awakenings. Smoking correlated positively to DIS (OR = 1.8) and estimated sleep latency. We conclude that the prevalence of DIS was fairly similar at these four European centers but that there was a variation in the prevalence of nightmares and nocturnal awakenings. The significant correlation between reported GER and subjective quality of sleep should be followed up in studies using objective measurements.