Although the prevalence of asthma has risen significantly during the last 30 yr, it is not clear whether this has occurred primarily in persons with a strong genetic predisposition to asthma and atopy or in other sections of the population. We have investigated outcomes in children of nuclear families selected through probands previously characterized by studies in 1964 and 1989 as having histories of persistent childhood onset atopic asthma, transient childhood wheezy bronchitis, and no respiratory symptoms or atopy. Children of wheezy bronchitic probands had a significantly better symptomatic outcome in adolescence, irrespective of the atopic status of the parent proband, than do children of either asthmatic or asymptomatic probands, suggesting that this may be a syndrome that shows familial aggregation and is distinct from asthma. Total serum IgE levels were significantly lower in children of nonatopic asymptomatic probands, including those with wheezing symptoms. In contrast children of nonatopic asymptomatic probands had an unexpectedly high prevalence of wheezing (33%), positive skin prick tests (56%), and positive specific serum IgE to common allergens (48%) that was similar to that found in children of atopic asthmatic probands. Our findings support the concept that wheezy bronchitis is a separate syndrome from atopic asthma. High total serum IgE levels within our population appear to be an important marker of genetic predisposition to atopy. Our data also suggest that much of the increase in asthma prevalence is associated with specific IgE sensitization and is occurring in persons previously considered to be at low risk of developing asthma or atopy.