If you're the type who likes to hike, ski or climb mountains, you might want to pack a bottle of ibuprofen — not just for achy muscle aches, but to help prevent altitude sickness.
Tens of millions of people travel to high-altitude spots each year, and a quarter of them wind up with acute altitude sickness from ascending too fast. The headaches, dizziness, sleeplessness, nausea, vomiting and other symptoms can ruin a vacation. In severe cases, it can cause fatal swelling in the brain.
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.
So they sent 86 hikers up into the White Mountains in Northern California to test the theory.
The hikers were about split into two groups, according to the study just published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine. Half got placebos and half took 600-milligram doses of ibuprofen before, during and after they climbed to an altitude of 12,570 feet. Ibuprofen commonly comes in 200-milligram pills.
The results showed the placebo group was three times more likely to come down with acute altitude sickness. Twenty-six percent fewer people got sick in the ibuprofen group than the placebo group, and the symptoms of those who did get sick were less severe.
The study's lead author, Grant S. Lipman of Stanford University School of Medicine, says it's important news for tourists and recreational mountaineers, as well as for military operations and search and rescue missions.
"We wanted to find something ... for people who don't have a prescription laying around who could have something in their pack they wanted to take that would work. We think this is an easy way of safe and convenient traveling in the mountains," Lipman tells Shots.
Altitude sickness can occur when the body isn't able to cope with the drops in air pressure and oxygen levels. Ibuprofen helps relieve the swelling and inflammation triggered at higher elevations.
It's rapidly absorbed and cheaper than some prescription drugs. It's also generally well-tolerated, though it can cause upset stomach and, in bad cases, bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract. It also can injure the kidneys of someone who is dehydrated, so it's important to take with food and plenty of water.
Still, ibuprofen has fewer side effects than prescription drugs like Diamox, also known as acetazolamide, or the steroid dexamethasone. Plus, Lipman notes, you can't drink beer when you're taking Diamox.
"I love climbing Mt. Shasta and skiing off the summit. I always get a headache about 13,000 feet, and next time I climb it, I'm going to take ibuprofen the day I travel," he says.
Because researchers didn't test how well ibuprofen works at extremely high altitudes of 15,000 feet and up – the kind you'd find in South America or the Himalayas – Lipman says he'd stick with prescription remedies there.
And for those of you who prefer to spend your off time a lot closer to sea level, The Wall Street Journal's Health Blog has some handy wilderness-safety advice, like avoiding elk-calving grounds.