Wilderness Medicine

Taking Ibuprofen to Avoid Altitude Sickness?

2 Mins read

Scouts at Philmont Scout Ranch in NM are often caught off-guard by altitude illnesses.

Why only feel great for 80% of your outdoor adventure?

If you’re the type who likes to hike, ski, or mountain climb, you may want to double check to make sure you’ve got ibuprofen in your first aid kit – and not just for muscle and headaches, but also to aid in preventing altitude illnesses such as Acute Mountain Sickness, HACE, & HAPE.

The number of outdoor enthusiasts that travel to high-altitude each year is in the millions – and over a quarter of them will come down with acute mountain sickness or other severe altitude related sickness. Altitude sickness occurs when the body isn’t able to cope with the drop in air pressure and oxygen levels, thereby reducing the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream and ultimately, the brain.

Common Signs of Acute Mountain Sickness:
   •  Headache & dizziness
   •  Nosebleed
   •  Rapid heart rate
   •  Shortness of breath (especially with exertion)
   •  Lethargy & fatigue
   •  Nausea & vomiting


People sometimes take prescription drugs like Diamox, a glaucoma treatment, to keep from getting sick. But medical researchers wondered whether ibuprofen, the painkilling mainstay, would be an effective over-the-counter alternative.

A joint study recently published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine by Standford University and the American Alpine Club, sent 86 hikers up into the White Mountains in Northern California to test the theory.

The hikers were about split evenly into two groups; one of which received placebo tablets, while the other group was given ibuprofen tablets. Both groups took their tablets (600mg) before, during and as well as after the study, which had them climb from an altitude of 4,100 feet to 12,570 feet over the course of two days and one night.

The study showed that of the group taking prophylactic ibuprofen (and remember that statistically, only 25% of individuals at altitude are taken ill with AMS) significantly lowered the instances of altitude sickness by nearly 30%! Of the group receiving the placebo, approximately 69% developed altitude sickness.

Those taking ibuprofen prophylactically not only had a significantly lower occurrence of altitude sickness, but the symptoms of those who did get sick were also less severe than those taking the placebo. Prophylactic use of ibuprofen in this study was defined as taking 600mg of ibuprofen three times a day for at least one or more days prior to reaching high altitude (6,000 – 8,000 feet).

While ibuprofen is a very common over-the-counter medication, one should be aware of some of both its pro’s and cons.

Ibuprofen is both fast and effective, and is much cheaper than most well-known prescription medications used to avoid altitude sickness. It’s also generally well-tolerated, although when not used as directed or taken chronically, it may lead to upset stomach and in some severe cases, cause bleeding and ulcers in the stomach and gastrointestinal tract.

According to the American Alpine Institute, ibuprofen has fewer side effects than its prescription counterparts such as Diamox (acetazolamide) or dexamethasone. The safety profile of ibuprofen makes it more attractive than dexamethasone, which has been associated with hyperglycemia, adrenal suppression, delirium, depression, and insomnia.

While larger doses of ibuprofen might “provide more robust prevention,” the study stated that there is an “increased risk of gastrointestinal and kidney problems in people who may be dehydrated.”

Because researchers did not test how well prophylactic ibuprofen works at extremely high altitudes (>15,000 feet elevation), it is still recommended to use prescription medications for these altitudes.

It’s always better to be safe than sorry, right?



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