In normal individuals, novel or noxious stimuli commonly evoke the pattern of the alerting or defence response which includes cutaneous vasoconstriction, but vasodilatation in forearm skeletal muscle. We have compared cardiovascular responses evoked by sound and by indirect cooling in 60 patients with homozygous sickle cell (SS) disease and in 30 control subjects with normal haemoglobin genotype (AA). A sound of 90 dB, 1 kHz for 30s evoked an increase in hand and forearm cutaneous vascular resistance (HCVR and FCVR) in SS patients and an increase in HCVR in AA subjects, as assessed from Doppler flowmetry. Meanwhile, a decrease in forearm vascular resistance (FVR) assessed by venous occlusion plethysmography, occurred in 14 out of 30 AA subjects and 25 out of 60 SS patients, indicating vasodilatation in forearm muscle; an increase in FVR occurred in the remainder. The proportions of SS patients and AA subjects who showed an increase in FVR (53% vs 57%) were not significantly different. Cooling increased HCVR and FCVR in SS patients and increased FCVR in AA subjects; a decrease in FVR indicating vasodilatation, occurred in 12 out of 30 AA subjects, but in only 10 out of 60 SS patients. The proportion of SS patients who showed an increase in FVR to cooling was greater than in AA subjects (83% vs 60%, P < 0.05). Thus, SS patients are just as capable of showing the muscle vasodilatation of the alerting response to sound as AA subjects. That few SS patients showed muscle vasodilatation in response to cooling is consistent with the view that reflex vasoconstrictor responses to cooling are particularly strong in SS patients. This, in turn, is consistent with our hypothesis that the reflex vasoconstrictor response to cooling acts as a trigger for the painful crisis of SS disease by diverting blood flow away from active bone marrow.