How to keep altitude sickness down to a minimum

Dr. Stephen Muza, Research Physiologist, and Mountain Medicine Team Leader Thermal & Mountain Medicine Division, US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine

wfedstaff | June 3, 2015 11:05 pm

By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor

If you’ve ever flown into Denver, you know it takes a few days to get acclimated to the city’s mile-high altitude. Well, imagine being a soldier parachuting into a high-altitude battleground. With no time to get acclimated, you might need to go on the march and face an enemy.

“In fact, the operations in Afghanistan are really the first high altitude operations that the U.S. military has engaged in since the end of World War II,” said Dr. Stephen Muza of the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine.

Since then, Muza told the Federal Drive, “it is true that the U.S. did not consider engagements at high altitude to be a fairly high-risk adventure.”


But that’s changed, said Muza, in the last 8 or 9 years a greater emphasis on a comprehensive program to understand and overcome altitude sickness.

The program, explained Muza, has four major goals, starting with modelling the risk since people aren’t that familiar with it. “If you think about it, virtually all basic training and even our forces bases in the U.S. are at low altitude, so our troops – Marines, soldiers, airmen – are all training at low altitude. So in order to give them a better understanding and reduce the mystery, shall we say, of altitude, we’ve been working on developing models of altitude sickness, work performance and acclimatization.”

After that, the program also focuses on climatization strategies, the physiological basis for altitude sickness and acclimatization, and to “identify biomarkers in objective assessment of individual susceptability,” said Muza. “Eventually, if we can target receptors within the body, we may be able to identify and develop pharmacological products that could actually induce altitude acclimatization without having to go to altitude, and prevent altitude sickness.”

For now, the best way to avoid the headache, fatigue, light headedness, nauseau, vomiting, sleep problems and overall malaise that comes with altitude sickness is to get close to where you’re going early and ease your way up.

“After just a week or so, you gain very effective altitude acclimatization and subsequently, you can go out on patrol or activities up to 10, 11, 12 thousand feet with relatively minimal impact with regard to altitude sickness,” said Muze.

Within reason.

“I will emphasize that the physical performance is improved somewhat with acclimatization, but it never comes back to your baseline condition.”

This story is part of Federal News Radio’s daily DoD Report. For more defense news, click here.