Pop an ibuprofen to ease altitude sickness

By Shayna Brouker • Published: June 1st, 2012
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Is a fear of altitude sickness keeping you from that summer skiing, hiking or climbing adventure? A quarter of people who venture into the heights experience the uncomfortable symptoms of altitude sickness, such as trouble sleeping, headache, fatigue and loss of appetite. Severe cases can even lead to confusion and an inability to walk straight. Altitude sickness happens when you climb too high too fast to areas where the air is thinner and your body doesn’t get the oxygen it needs. Also known as acute mountain sickness, it can be dangerous … and even fatal.

But the solution could be as simple as popping a pill. Research published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine found that taking ibuprofen could reduce the likelihood of developing altitude sickness by up to 26 percent. Scientists gave a group of hikers four doses of 600-milligram ibuprofen throughout a 24-hour period as they ascended to 12,570 feet in California’s White Mountains. Only 43 percent of the hikers who popped ibuprofen developed symptoms of altitude sickness, compared with 69 percent of those in the control group.

Among those who did get sick, taking ibuprofen didn’t did not help ease all the symptoms of altitude sickness, but it did reduce nausea and vomiting. Ibuprofen was about as effective as prescription-only medicines, and it yielded fewer unpleasant side effects. It works by reducing inflammation in the brain, which occurs as a result of lower pressure and thinner air.

As wilderness worries go, altitude sickness is no small matter. If you think you are experiencing Rocky Mountain high, go to a lower altitude or take it easy where you are. Drink plenty of water and limit physical activity. And wherever you wander, be sure to bring a pack of ibuprofen pills with you.