Ibuprofen may be used effectively for altitude sickness: Study

Ibuprofen – the simple, widely available, over-the-counter pain reliever could help with altitude sickness.

Altitude sickness manifests by symptoms including a headache, fatigue, dizziness and sometimes nausea and vomiting. In addition, patients most likely also feel like they are working harder to breathe, like they are constantly trying to catch their breath. It normally takes days to weeks to fully acclimate to a higher altitude. It affects between 25 percent and 40 percent of the population and can be debilitating.

There are other medicines that are used to help treat altitude sickness. Dexamethasone and acetazolamide are the two most often prescribed but both have side effects that can make them tough for some to take. Having a simple medicine like ibuprofen to treat this problem can help those going to higher altitude.

Researchers publishing a study in the Annals of Emergency Medicine gave 86 low-altitude volunteers either 600 mg of ibuprofen or a placebo six hours before ascending to a higher altitude and then at six-hour intervals. 44 participants received ibuprofen and 42 got a placebo. They received doses at base camp and another at 11,700 feet. All hiked nearly three miles at altitude, after which they received a third dose. Then they spent the night and took a final dose in the morning. Their symptoms were monitored and tallied through a questionnaire. Significantly fewer of those taking the ibuprofen reported altitude sickness symptoms.

The odds of developing acute mountain sickness, or AMS, were far more likely in a placebo group than in those who took ibuprofen. Overall, 69 percent of people in the placebo group developed AMS, compared with just 43 percent in the ibuprofen group.

And symptoms of AMS were less severe in people in the ibuprofen group who did develop the illness, according to study lead author Dr. Grant Lipman of Stanford University School of Medicine. “We did this study with the mountaineer or those who have limited vacation time in mind, but it certainly has applicability to the war fighter,” Lipman said. “If you have limited vacation time, or in the case of the military, you don't have time to prepare to go to high altitude, this potentially could be a good medicine,” Lipman said.

Ibuprofen, as with any medication, carries risk. The popular anti-inflammatory can cause upset stomach, gastrointestinal bleeding and kidney damage in those with reduced kidney function. “Ibuprofen needs to be taken with lots of fluids and food,” Lipman said. To ward off AMS, the recommended dose, according to Lipman, is 600 milligrams six hours before ascent and 600 milligrams three times on the day of travel.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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