Serial changes in spirometry during an ascent to 5,300 m in the Nepalese Himalayas

High Alt Med Biol. 2000 Fall;1(3):185-95. doi: 10.1089/15270290050144181.


The aims of the present study were to determine the changes in forced vital capacity (FVC), forced expiratory volume in 1 sec (FEV1) and peak expiratory flow (PEF), during an ascent to 5,300 m in the Nepalese Himalayas, and to correlate the changes with arterial oxygen saturation measured by pulse oximetry (SpO2) and symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS). Forty-six subjects were studied twice daily during an ascent from 2,800 m (mean barometric pressure 550.6 mmHg) to 5,300 m (mean barometric pressure 404.3 mmHg) during a period of between 10 and 16 days. Measurements of FVC, FEV1, PEF, SpO2, and AMS were recorded. AMS was assessed using a standardized scoring system. FVC fell with altitude, by a mean of 4% from sea level values [95% confidence intervals (CI) 0.9% to 7.4%] at 2,800 m, and 8.6% (95% CI 5.8 to 11.4%) at 5,300 m. FEV1 did not change with increasing altitude. PEF increased with altitude by a mean of 8.9% (95% CI 2.7 to 15.1%) at 2,800 m, and 16% (95% CI 9 to 23%) at 5,300 m. These changes were not significantly related to SpO2 or AMS scores. These results confirm a progressive fall in FVC and increase in PEF with increasing hypobaric hypoxia while FEV1 remains unchanged. The increase in PEF is less than would be predicted from the change in gas density. The fall in FVC may be due to reduced inspiratory force producing a reduction in total lung capacity; subclinical pulmonary edema; an increase in pulmonary blood volume, or changes in airway closure. The absence of a correlation between the spirometric changes and SpO2 or AMS may simply reflect that these measurements of pulmonary function are not sufficiently sensitive indicators of altitude-related disease. Further studies are required to clarify the effects of hypobaric hypoxia on lung volumes and flows in an attempt to obtain a unifying explanation for these changes.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Altitude Sickness / physiopathology*
  • Altitude*
  • Female
  • Forced Expiratory Volume
  • Humans
  • Lung / physiology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mountaineering / physiology*
  • Nepal
  • Peak Expiratory Flow Rate
  • Spirometry*
  • Vital Capacity