If you are the adventurous type who enjoys spending weekends hiking or climbing to the tops of mountains, or routinely crave the feeling of fresh powder hitting your face as you ski down the black diamond run of Widow’s Peak, you probably have dealt with acute mountain sickness.
Generally felt when at heights above 8,000 feet, acute mountain sickness is caused by a combination of reduced air pressure with the lower levels of oxygen present when at higher altitudes. Individuals who normally live at or near sea level face a greater risk of feeling the affects of acute mountain sickness, which symptoms can manifest as light-headedness, fatigue, nausea, shortness of breath, and headaches. Severe affects can also include tightness of the chest, coughing up blood, disorientation, and an inability to walk.
Of the millions of people who ascend to high-altitude locations each year, roughly 25 percent end up with acute mountain sickness from climbing too fast. While the general symptoms can throw a severe crimp in your travel plans, the more serious affects can prove potentially fatal under the right circumstances.
Prescription drugs such as Diamox are often taken by individuals to combat the symptoms of acute mountain sickness, but a recent study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine suggests that Ibuprofen may be a more effective over-the-counter alternative.
To test their hypothesis, researchers divided volunteers heading up the White Mountains of California into two groups. The first group received 600-milligram tablets of Ibuprofen (most over-the-counter Ibuprofen comes in 200-milligram tablets) to take three times a day while ascending the mountain range, while the second group received a placebo. Starting six hours prior to their ascent from 4,100 ft to 12,500 ft, both groups of volunteers had their symptoms measured using the Lake Louise Questionnaire, a standardized test for determining acute mountain sickness.
Of the 86 individuals to finish the climb, 51 percent received the Ibuprofen and 49 percent the placebo. Of the two groups, 69 percent of the volunteers who took the placebo suffered symptoms related to acute mountain sickness, while only 43 percent of those who took the Ibuprofen suffered any related symptoms.
Researchers explain that Ibuprofen’s ability to reduce swelling and inflammation helps to counter the body’s inability to cope with the decrease of air pressure and oxygen at higher altitude levels. Ibuprofen also causes fewer side effects than most prescription drugs, and, unlike Diamox, you can drink beer while taking the drug.
Researchers were unable to test the effects of Ibuprofen at extreme altitudes of over 15,000 feet, and recommend that climbers still use prescription medication when traveling to these high altitude locations found in say South America or the Himalayas.
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