Does ibuprofen prevent altitude sickness?

Quick Answer

Ibuprofen may help prevent or reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness for some people when combined with other preventive measures, but more research is needed to confirm its effectiveness. Ibuprofen can help alleviate headache and other symptoms but does not treat the underlying causes of altitude sickness.

What is altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness is a condition that can occur when traveling to high elevation areas, usually above 8,000 feet (2,400 meters). It’s caused by the lower air pressure and oxygen levels at higher elevations. As you ascend to higher altitudes, your body needs time to adjust to the decrease in oxygen.

The most common symptoms of altitude sickness include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Shortness of breath

Altitude sickness can range from mild to life-threatening. Milder forms include acute mountain sickness (AMS) and high altitude headache. More severe forms include high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE).

AMS is the most common type of altitude sickness. Symptoms usually start within 6 to 10 hours of ascending to a high elevation and often resolve within 1 to 2 days as the body acclimatizes. HAPE and HACE are more dangerous, involving fluid buildup in the lungs or brain tissue. They require immediate descent to lower elevation.

What causes altitude sickness?

The exact causes of altitude sickness are not fully understood, but the main trigger is low oxygen levels at higher elevations. At sea level, air contains about 21% oxygen. Oxygen levels decline as elevation increases. The lower oxygen leads to the following changes in the body:

  • Reduced ability for the blood to carry oxygen (hypoxemia)
  • Increased breathing rate (hyperventilation)
  • Increased heart rate and pressure in the pulmonary arteries
  • Fluid buildup and swelling, especially in the lungs and brain

These changes produce the symptoms of altitude sickness. People have different susceptibility based on physiology, exertion level, rate of ascent, and other factors. Even very fit and healthy people can get altitude sickness. Your body needs time to adjust to the lower oxygen levels.

Can ibuprofen help prevent altitude sickness?

Ibuprofen is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication often used to relieve pain, fever, and inflammation. Research on using ibuprofen to prevent altitude sickness has shown mixed results:

  • A small 2007 study in healthy volunteers found that taking 600 mg ibuprofen every 8 hours starting 1 day prior to ascent reduced acute mountain sickness symptoms compared to placebo. However, this was a very short-term study with a small number of participants.
  • A larger 2012 randomized trial concluded that 600 mg ibuprofen taken every 8 hours did not offer any significant protection against acute mountain sickness during rapid ascent to altitude versus placebo.
  • A 2018 review study found inconclusive evidence on ibuprofen for altitude sickness due to the limited quality research. The authors stated that ibuprofen may provide modest benefits but should not replace other prevention strategies.

Overall, current research does not strongly support using ibuprofen alone to prevent altitude sickness. But it may provide some relief when combined with other therapies.

Ibuprofen can help alleviate headache, one of the most common altitude sickness symptoms. By decreasing swelling, it may also improve oxygen flow for some individuals at high elevations.

However, ibuprofen does not treat the underlying physiological changes of low oxygen that cause altitude sickness. It should not replace proper acclimatization and gradual ascent.

Other prevention strategies

Here are some evidence-based strategies to help prevent altitude sickness:

  • Gradual ascent – Climb no more than 1,000 to 2,000 ft (300 to 600 m) per day above 8,000 ft (2,400 m). Allow your body time to acclimate.
  • Hydration – Drink plenty of fluids to counteract higher water loss at altitude.
  • Avoid alcohol – Alcohol promotes dehydration and can worsen symptoms.
  • Acetazolamide – This prescription carbonic anhydrase inhibitor improves acclimatization.
  • Descend immediately if experiencing severe symptoms of HAPE or HACE.

Staying healthy and allowing enough time to ascend are the best ways to avoid altitude illness. Using ibuprofen may provide some additional symptom relief in combination with other strategies.

When to take ibuprofen for altitude sickness

Based on the limited evidence, some medical experts suggest these general ibuprofen altitude sickness usage guidelines:

  • Take 400-600 mg every 6-8 hours starting 24-48 hours before ascent.
  • Do not exceed 1200 mg in 24 hours due to risks of stomach bleeding.
  • Continue taking while at altitude, but avoid longer than 48 hours without medical advice.
  • Only use for mild to moderate symptoms, not severe or critical altitude illness.
  • Discontinue if any gastric side effects occur.
  • Do not take prophylactic aspirin due to increased bleeding risk.

Again, research has not clearly proven that ibuprofen prevents altitude sickness or related complications. It should complement, not replace, gradual ascent, hydration, and other prevention strategies. Only take after consulting your doctor about your specific health history and ascent plans.

Ibuprofen risks and precautions

While relatively safe at OTC doses for most healthy adults, ibuprofen does have some risks and considerations:

  • May cause stomach pain, heartburn, ulcers, or bleeding in the stomach and intestines, especially at high doses.
  • Increases blood pressure and heart rate.
  • Can affect kidney function and worsen fluid retention.
  • Alters platelet function and may increase bleeding risk.
  • Can cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals.
  • Not recommended for people with certain conditions like asthma, liver disease, or bleeding disorders.
  • Avoid taking for more than 10 days unless directed by your doctor.

These risks may be amplified at high altitudes. Be sure to speak with your doctor before using ibuprofen as a preventive medication for altitude sickness.

Using ibuprofen to treat altitude sickness

While evidence does not clearly support ibuprofen for prevention, it can help relieve certain altitude sickness symptoms:

  • Headaches – Ibuprofen is an effective OTC pain reliever that can alleviate altitude headache or migraine.
  • Fever – The anti-inflammatory effects may modestly reduce fever from altitude illness.
  • Aches and pains – It relieves general pain associated with altitude exposure.

However, ibuprofen does not improve oxygenation levels or treat the physiological causes of altitude sickness. It should not be used as the sole treatment. Descending to a lower altitude is the only definitive treatment.

Use ibuprofen temporarily to relieve symptoms while making arrangements to descend or get advanced medical care for severe cases of HAPE or HACE.

When to descend

Descending, or getting to a lower elevation, is the most effective way to relieve altitude sickness symptoms. You should descend immediately if you experience any of the following:

  • Severe headache or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath with coughing or frothy sputum
  • Altered consciousness, confusion, or neurological symptoms
  • Chest tightness or congestion
  • Signs of HAPE or HACE

Even milder symptoms may warrant descent if they are increasing in severity or not improving with hydration, rest, and acclimatization. Never ignore worsening altitude sickness. Early descent can prevent complications and save lives.

Summary

In summary, using ibuprofen to prevent altitude sickness has not been well proven by research. While it may provide modest relief for some people, ibuprofen does not address the underlying physiological causes of altitude illness. It should not replace proper acclimatization, hydration, gradual ascent, and other prevention strategies.

For symptom relief, ibuprofen can temporarily alleviate headache, fever, and aches associated with mild to moderate sickness. However, it is not a treatment for the illness itself. Severe altitude sickness requires immediate descent for full recovery.

Only use ibuprofen for altitude after consulting your doctor about potential drug interactions and side effects. While generally safe at OTC doses, ibuprofen does carry risks that can be amplified at high elevations. Combine ibuprofen with other prevention methods, never use it as a sole countermeasure or treatment for altitude sickness.

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