Going to the Mountains? Pack Ibuprofen to Prevent Altitude Sickness
People who took ibuprofen before, during and after ascending to a high altitude had significantly lower odds of developing acute mountain, or high altitude sickness (AMS), and even those who did develop AMS had less severe symptoms. The results of a clinical trial will be published online today in Annals of Emergency Medicine (“Ibuprofen Prevents Altitude Illness: A Randomized Control Trial for Prevention of Altitude Illness with Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatories (PAINS)”).
“This is great news for the millions of people who head to the mountains every year and develop altitude sickness, which can be very debilitating, even potentially fatal,” said lead study author Grant S. Lipman, MD, of Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, Calif. “Ibuprofen is widely available over the counter and well tolerated by most people. This is a simple and inexpensive solution for an illness that ruins a lot of vacations.”
Researchers randomized 89 participants to two groups: 44 received ibuprofen and 42 received placebo. Participants not given placebos were given 600 milligrams of ibuprofen when they were at 4,100 feet above sea level. After being driven to an altitude of 11,700 feet, participants took another dose of ibuprofen. They hiked approximately 2.7 miles to an altitude of 12,570 feet, after which the third dose of ibuprofen was administered. After spending the night at that altitude, participants took a final dose of ibuprofen in the morning.
The odds of developing AMS were three times greater in those taking placebo than in those taking ibuprofen. Overall, 26 percent fewer people developed AMS in the ibuprofen group than in the placebo group. Symptoms of AMS were less severe in people in the ibuprofen group who did develop AMS.
Acute mountain sickness describes a group of symptoms including headache, sleep disturbance, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, vomiting or lack of appetite that commonly occurs in travelers ascending to altitudes above 8,250 feet.
“Other preventive medications for acute mountain sickness are prescription-only and carry with them more potential complications than ibuprofen, which is what makes our findings so significant,” said Dr. Lipman. “This is important news for tourists and recreational mountaineers, as well as military operations and search and rescue missions. If you are heading to the mountains, take some ibuprofen the day you go."
Annals of Emergency Medicine is the peer-reviewed scientific journal for the American College of Emergency Physicians, the national medical society representing emergency medicine. ACEP is committed to advancing emergency care through continuing education, research, and public education. Headquartered in Dallas, Texas, ACEP has 53 chapters representing each state, as well as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. A Government Services Chapter represents emergency physicians employed by military branches and other government agencies. For more information visit www.acep.org.