Adequate information about characteristics of asthmatic patients in large health maintenance organizations (HMOs) is still lacking. As part of an ongoing longitudinal study, baseline data were collected on 914 individuals aged 3 to 55 yr with physician-diagnosed asthma within a large HMO, Kaiser Permanente, NW Region. There were no significant differences between men and women in post-bronchodilator FEV1 when expressed as percent (%) predicted yet women with asthma reported more daytime and nocturnal symptoms than men (p = 0.002), and worse quality of life in all but three of 14 subscales in two asthma quality of life instruments. Specifically, women in the 35-55 yr age group uniformly reported worse physical functioning on the SF-36 quality of life scale (71 +/- 23 versus 85 +/- 18; p = 0.001), social functioning (73 +/- 21 versus 77 +/- 20; p = 0.016), and bodily pain (63 +/- 27 versus 72 +/- 24; p < 0.001). Also these women reported use of more health care (p = 0.002) and more medications for asthma than men (p < 0.01). Our data suggest that men and women respond differently to their asthma, and observed gender differences in various measures of asthma such as hospital admissions, quality of life, and use of metered dose inhalers (MDIs), may be related to this difference in response to disease, rather than to real differences in the disease between men and women. Understanding gender related differences in response to a chronic disease such as asthma is important in tailoring an education and management plan to each individual patient.