Recent studies have found a higher prevalence of allergic rhinitis and atopic sensitization among adults living in eastern than those living in western Germany. We hypothesize that prevalence rates were similar before Germany was divided and diverged after the division. Because there are no historical data comparing atopic status between the two parts of Germany, we tested this hypothesis by comparing the prevalence of atopy among persons who were born during different decades. As part of the EC Respiratory Health Survey, a respiratory health questionnaire was mailed to a population-based sample of 8363 subjects aged 20-44 years from a city in the former West Germany (Hamburg) and a city in the former East Germany (Erfurt). Of the target population, 6428 (77%) subjects responded. Subsamples of 731 subjects from Erfurt and 1159 subjects from Hamburg participated in medical examinations, including skin prick tests and specific IgE measurements. Prevalence rates of allergic sensitization were similar in Hamburg and Erfurt for those born in the periods 1946-51 and 1952-61, respectively, but differed between Hamburg and Erfurt subjects born in the period 1962-71. After adjustment for several potential predictors, the younger subjects from Hamburg had a higher odds ratio (OR) of sensitization than those Hamburg subjects born before 1952 (skin prick test reactivity: OR 2.06, any specific IgE > 0.35 kU/l: OR 1.61). The younger subjects from Erfurt were not more frequently sensitized than the older subjects (skin prick test reactivity: OR 1.05, any specific IgE > 0.35 kU/l: OR 0.79). No single allergen could be identified as responsible for the observed difference. We conclude that factors related to a "Western lifestyle", which were prevalent in the West German city during the 1960s and 1970s, may be responsible for the higher prevalence of allergic sensitization observed in Hamburg.