Altitude-related hypoxia: risk assessment and management for passengers on commerical aircraft

Aviat Space Environ Med. 2003 Sep;74(9):922-7.


Background: Individuals with pulmonary and cardiac disorders are particularly at risk of developing hypoxemia at altitude. Our objective is to describe the normal and maladaptive physiological responses to altitude-related hypoxia, to review existing methods and guidelines for preflight assessment of air travelers, and to provide recommendations for treatment of hypoxia at altitude.

Data synthesis: Falling partial pressure of oxygen with altitude results in a number of physiologic adaptations including hyperventilation, pulmonary vasoconstriction, altered ventilation/perfusion matching, and increased sympathetic tone. According to three guideline statements, the arterial pressure of oxygen (PaO2) should be maintained above 50 to 55 mm Hg at all altitudes. General indicators such as oxygen saturation and sea level blood gases may be useful in predicting altitude hypoxia. More specialized techniques for estimation of altitude PaO2, such as regression equations, hypoxia challenge testing, and hypobaric chamber exposure have also been examined. A regression equation using sea level PaO2 and spirometric parameters can be used to estimate PaO2 at altitude. Hypoxia challenge testing, performed by exposing subjects to lower inspired FIO2 at sea level may be more precise. Hypobaric chamber exposure, the gold standard, mimics lower barometric pressure, but is mainly used in research.

Conclusion: Oxygen supplementation during air travel is needed for individuals with an estimated PaO2 (8000 ft) below 50 mmHg. There are a number of guidelines for the pre-flight assessment of patients with pulmonary and/or cardiac diseases. However, these data are based on small studies in patients with a limited group of diseases.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aerospace Medicine
  • Altitude Sickness / diagnosis
  • Altitude Sickness / epidemiology
  • Altitude Sickness / prevention & control*
  • Aviation / organization & administration
  • Canada
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / epidemiology
  • Comorbidity
  • Cystic Fibrosis / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / epidemiology
  • Regression Analysis
  • Risk Assessment
  • Risk Factors
  • Risk Management