Canned oxygen is a common staple at ski resorts and high-altitude vacation spots. People often reach for it as a quick fix for treating altitude sickness symptoms and for improving sleep during their vacations. But does using canned oxygen for altitude sickness actually work?
Since the use of this product is so widespread, we wanted to hear what experts across multiple fields had to say about its effectiveness. So, we reached out to an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine, a registered respiratory therapist, and a board-certified hyperbaric medicine and medical toxicology physician to find out if canned oxygen is truly a quick fix for preventing or treating altitude sickness. Here’s what they had to say.
What is altitude sickness and why does it happen?
Altitude sickness is essentially a group of symptoms that can occur if you travel or climb to high elevations without giving yourself a chance to acclimate. When you ascend to higher altitudes, air oxygen levels decrease. A rapid change in air pressure also occurs. These atmospheric changes can cause lightheadedness, nausea, shortness of breath, and other symptoms in people of any age, gender, or fitness level. Pregnant people are at a higher risk for altitude sickness, no matter how physically fit they are. So are people with heart and lung conditions.
You don’t have to climb as high as Mt. Everest’s 29,000 feet to experience altitude sickness. According to Cleveland Clinic, this condition affects around half of all people who visit elevations above 8,000 ft. For instance, if you’re planning on skiing at Telluride in Colorado, you’ll be schussing down slopes that reach 13,000 ft. Crossing the pond? Switzerland’s famed Matterhorn is close to 15,000 ft. high.
Does using canned oxygen for altitude sickness help?
Your best friend’s manicurist’s boyfriend may swear by canned oxygen, but the experts we spoke to all noted the lack of solid evidence about its claims. “While there are some anecdotal reports of the benefits of using canned oxygen, there is generally no scientific evidence to support the claim that canned oxygen can reduce altitude sickness or improve athletic performance,” says Atlanta-based orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist, Kellie K. Middleton, MD, MPH.
Dr. Middleton notes that breathing canned oxygen may help athletes temporarily increase their oxygen levels. She stresses however that it is not a long-term solution. Registered respiratory therapist, John Landry BS, RRT, agrees but takes a softer stance about its use. “While the scientific evidence may be limited, it’s worth considering incorporating canned oxygen as a preventative measure for altitude sickness, especially for those who have had success with it in the past. It’s important to note that it ultimately comes down to personal preference and each individual’s experience,” he says.
Landry also notes that anecdotal evidence about canned oxygen may be based on people’s perceptions of it. “There’s an interesting placebo effect witnessed by experienced mountaineers, that simply having access to canned oxygen alleviates stress levels and provides the psychological benefits of having a perceived safety net,” he says.
Here’s why relying solely on canned oxygen for altitude sickness could be dangerous
It’s clear that, when not treated effectively, altitude sickness can make you very sick, or worse. For that reason, relying solely on canned oxygen as a fix may not be a great strategy, even if it’s worked for you in the past. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that altitude sickness presents in three clinical syndrome stages:
- Acute mountain sickness is when symptoms are mild and similar to a common alcoholic hangover.
- High-altitude cerebral edema occurs with severe symptoms including breathlessness and lack of muscle control can occur. There’s also the potential for death within 24 hours after ataxia (lack of muscle control) occurs if descent does not occur immediately.
- High-altitude pulmonary edema is a rare presentation of altitude sickness that is earmarked by severe symptoms and the potential for rapid death.
“Canned oxygen is not a recognized treatment for altitude sickness. While medical-grade oxygen is a drug that is regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration, canned oxygen is not considered to be a medical product and cannot be marketed as a treatment or preventive measure for any disease,” says board-certified hyperbaric medicine and medical toxicology physician, Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD, FACEP, FUHM, FACMT.
Dr. Johnson-Arbor feels that using canned oxygen to prevent or treat altitude sickness may be potentially dangerous if people ignore the recommended methods of preventing and treating this condition. So, if you want to use it feel free, just make sure you also have a preventative backup plan in place.
How to actually prevent and treat altitude sickness
Despite their varying opinions on canned oxygen, all of the experts we spoke to agree on these tried-and-true methods for dealing with altitude sickness. First, it’s a good idea to take these steps to prevent it:
- Take it slow and let your body acclimate to higher elevations over time. Ascending gradually by around 1,000-1,600 feet a day is best. Take rest days at each elevation.
- Plan to arrive at your final ascension a day or two before skiing, climbing, or indulging in strenuous activities.
- Remain hydrated before and during your ascent.
- Reduce or eliminate alcohol and caffeine.
- Eat light meals and avoid heavy foods that may cause indigestion.
- Get plenty of rest.
- If you’ve had altitude sickness before, talk to your healthcare provider about taking medications that prevent illness, such as dexamethasone or acetazolamide.
Of course, if you feel unwell, take a break, and don’t push yourself past your physical limits. You may need to head to a lower altitude and stay there until you feel better. And if you are experiencing severe symptoms, it’s best to seek medical attention right away.