Altitude sickness can be prevented by taking Ibuprofen according to research published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.
A small study of 86 men and women was conducted in California’s White Mountains for two nights and found that people who took four 600-milligram doses of ibuprofen over a 24-hour period in which they went up to 12,570 feet above sea level were less likely to get altitude sickness compared to those taking a placebo.
Sixty-nine percent of the study participants who took the placebo during their climb up the mountain developed the headaches, nausea, dizziness, and fatigue which is typical altitude sickness symptoms. Compared to 43% of people who took ibuprofen developed less severe symptoms.
Robert Roach, Ph.D., director of the Altitude Research Center at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine, who was not directly involved in the study said, “Ibuprofen appears to be nearly as effective as acetazolamide and dexamethasone, so it may be an option for people traveling to high altitudes who don’t yet know if they’re susceptible.” He added, “In general, 20% to 30% of people will experience altitude sickness at 7,000 feet, and up to 50% will get sick at 10,000 feet.”
The researchers said, “We suggest that availability alone makes ibuprofen an appealing drug for individuals who travel to high altitudes. In addition, ibuprofen was effective when taken six hours before ascent, in contrast to acetazolamide, whose recommendations include that it be started the day before travel to high altitude.”
Experts aren’t sure what causes altitude sickness. One reason is that lower oxygen levels at high elevations lead to leaks in the blood-brain barrier, which can cause the brain to swell. Ibuprofen, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug and can help reduce swelling.
“At altitude, there is something called the zone of tolerance, or the ‘altitude glass ceiling’ above your head where you can still tolerate the thinner air. Ibuprofen can increase the amount of space above you by increasing the altitude at which your body is now tolerant to your environment,” Dr Grant Lipman said.
One piece of advice to prevent altitude sickness is to drink lots of fluids, avoid alcohol for the first day or two at altitude, avoid medications that can affect breathing, such as sleeping pills and sedatives and eat lots of carbs, which is believed to help improve respiratory function.
In some rare cases, altitude sickness can cause potentially fatal brain swelling. Milder, more common altitude sickness symptoms usually go away in a few days, but that may be too long to wait for the trekker or skier with precious little vacation time.
Lead scientist Dr Grant Lipman, from Stanford University said, “You don’t want to feel horrible for 15 to 20% of your vacation. Ibuprofen could be a way to prevent AMS in a significant number of the tens of millions of people who travel to high altitudes each year.” He added, “The idea that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is more important in wilderness medicine where you may be two hours or more away from any definitive health care.”