Altitude sickness or acute mountain sickness (AMS) and its symptoms, including nausea, headache, vomiting, and fatigue, is the bane of climbers, hikers, skiers, and travelers. Over 25% of recreationists get altitude sickess from a lack of oxygen in thin air environments like the Colorado Rockies.
Now a new study in Annals of Emergency Medicine authored by Dr. Grant Lipan, a professor of emergency medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine and a climber, recommends that taking a few ibuprofen tablets can prevent and alleviate the symptoms of AMS. Lipman says, "Ibuprofen can prevent 26% of cases of altitude sickness and help people who are without symptoms to stay without symptoms."
Prior to the study, recommended medications for AMS included dexamethasone and acetazolamide or Diamox, a prescription-only drug. Now add ibuprofen to the list of cures. Ibuprofen has lots of pluses--its fast-acting, cheap, readily available, and quickly absorbed by the body. Both dexamethasone and acetazolamide have adverse effects, whereas ibuprofen has few except for an increased risk of gastrointestinal and kidney problems in users who are dehydrated.
As we ascend to higher altitudes, our bodies adjust to decreased oxygen in the air and reduction in air pressure, which leads to a swelling of the brain in some climbers. This allows fluid to build up in the brain, putting pressure on cranial nerves and causing headaches, dizziness, and the other symptoms of altitude sickness. Ibuprofen, an anti-flammatory drug, decreases the swelling, lowering the risk of headaches and helping the body to adjust to an oxygen-deprived environment.
Dr. Lipman recommends taking 600 mg or three 200 mg ibuprofen tablets, like Advil or Motrin, several hours before climbing to a higher elevation. He notes that climbers should then take 24 hours off the drug to allow the body to adjust and acclimatize to the new higher altitude. Ibuprofen allows climbers and other altitude junkies to get past the initial period that causes AMS and helps the body to adjust to decrease the symptoms.
Photograph above: If you're climbing Mount Foraker, bring lots of ibuprofen to avoid altitude sickness. Photograph courtesy Doug Hatfield