A recent study by Stanford University has found that ibuprofen could prevent altitude sickness, a condition that commonly affects skiers, hikers, and tourists to high elevations. Ibuprofen is a common over-the-counter medication available worldwide.
Altitude sickness (also called acute mountain syndrome or AMS) is quite common among people visiting higher altitudes. It's most common among people going on skiing vacations and hiking up to the tops of mountains. Typical symptoms of altitude sickness are nausea, dizziness, and headaches. It's often compared to an especially nasty hangover. In particular sever cases, altitude sickness can lead to cerebral edema, a swelling of the brain that can prove fatal.
Researchers are not entirely sure what causes the symptoms of altitude sickness. One well-accepted theory is that the thinner air leads to a swilling of the brain. The lower oxygen concentration causes the body to compensate with additional fluids, which fill the brain and cause the symptoms.
As a common over-the-counter anti-inflammatory, ibuprofen is ideal to treat the condition. The study done by Stanford involved 86 people in a double blind test. Some were given 600mg of ibuprofen four times a day, and others were given a placebo (a pill with no active drugs in it) at the same times. The researchers handed out the medications were not aware of which participant got that set of pills.
Out of the group of participants taking the placebo, 69% of them developed altitude sickness. This is compared to 43% of the participants taking ibuprofen who got sick. These results are comparable to existing prescription medications such as acetazolamide and dexamethasone, both of which can result in side effects such as nausea, fatigue, elevated blood sugar, and disturbed sleep.
Research is still in its early stage when it comes to ibuprofen and altitude sickness. A major concern is that the drug does not treat the root cause of the problem, which could lead to a false sense of security. Without the typical warning signs of the symptoms, it would be easy to fall prey to cerebral edema without warning.
Likewise, there are the well-known side effects of ibuprofen. Most commonly, the medication causes stomach problems. In extended use, there is also an increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.
In the short term, ibuprofen can be used to treat acute symptoms of altitude sickness. But nothing beats a well-planned ascent with regular stops to allow the body to adjust to the new conditions of a higher altitude. It's important to be careful with high altitudes and not to use a medication as an excuse for recklessness.