Studies have suggested that there is a higher prevalence of asthma in northern Sweden than in southern Sweden. Bronchial hyper-responsiveness (BHR) has been shown to be associated with asthma. The aim of this study was to explore the prevalence of bronchical hyper-responsiveness in different parts of Sweden. As part of the European Community Respiratory Health Survey (ECRHS), interviews, skin prick tests, lung function tests and methacholine provocation tests of the airways were performed in 1448 randomly selected subjects in southern, central and northern Sweden. The Mefar dosimeter was used according to the ECRHS protocol. The responsiveness was calculated both as the PD20 and as the dose response slope (DRS). BHR was defined as a PD20 of < or = 1.6 mg. Atopy was defined as at least one skin prick test of > or = 3 mm. The prevalence of BHR was 12.7%, 10.6% in men and 15.0% in women. No difference in prevalence was found between the three different regions of Sweden. The prevalence of BHR was higher in women than in men and higher in smokers than in non-smokers. Using multiple logistic regression, with BHR as the dependent variable, atopy, being female, having a low FEV1 (% predicted) and smoking (both own and passive) increased the odds of having BHR, while age and the region of Sweden did not influence BHR. Defining BHR as a PD20 of < or = 1.0 mg or a PD20 of < or = 2.0 mg did not change this. Multiple regression using log DRS as the dependent variable produced the same result. Both BHR and increasing DRS were associated with self-reported wheezing, attacks of shortness of breath during the daytime at rest or after strenuous activity, being awakened by a feeling of tightness in the chest or an attack of shortness of breath. In subjects without self-reported asthma, BHR was associated with self-reported wheezing and attacks of shortness of breath after strenuous activity. In conclusion, we found that the prevalence of BHR in the three investigated areas was 12.7%. We found a trend towards a higher prevalence of BHR in the most northerly of the study areas, but the difference between the areas was not statistically significant. BHR and DRS were associated with atopy, smoking, female sex and FEV1 (% predicted). The reporting of symptoms from the airways was associated with the degree of bronchical responsiveness.