The acute chest syndrome (ACS), a pneumonia-like illness in sickle cell patients, is one of the most frequent causes of their morbidity and hospitalizations. Repeated ACS events may predict the development of chronic lung disease. ACS is reported as a frequent cause of death in these patients. We examine here the incidence and risk factors of ACS in 3,751 patients with sickle cell disease who were observed prospectively for at least 2 years (19,867 patient-years [pt-yrs]) as part of a multicenter national study group. The ACS, defined by a new pulmonary infiltrate on x-ray, occurred at least once in 1,085 patients (2,100 events). ACS incidence was higher in patients with homozygous sickle cell disease (SS; 12.8/100 pt-yrs) and in patients with sickle cell-beta(0) -thalassemic (9.4/100 pt-yrs), and lower in patients with hemoglobin (Hb) SC disease (5.2/100 pt-yrs) and patients with sickle cell-beta(+) thalassemia (3.9/100 pt-yrs). alpha-Thalassemia did not affect the rate of ACS incidence in SS patients. Within each Hb type the incidence was strongly but inversely related to age, being highest in children 2 to 4 years of age (25.3/100 pt-yrs in SS) and decreasing gradually to its lowest value in adults (8.8/100 pt-yrs in SS). In SS children (< 10 years of age), we documented an age-related within- person reduction in ACS attack rates. Adults with a higher ACS rate had a higher rate of mortality (from all causes) than those with low ACS rates. This increased rate of mortality might also have contributed to the decline in ACS rate with age. In multivariate analysis, other factors affecting incidence in SS patients were degree of anemia (lower ACS rates in patients with lower steady-state Hb levels) and fetal Hb (lower rates in patients with high fetal Hb). There was also a positive association between ACS rate and steady-state leukocyte count. The relationship of ACS rate to higher steady-state Hb levels in SS patients is unexplained but might be caused by increased blood viscosity.