Mechanisms of action of acetazolamide in the prophylaxis and treatment of acute mountain sickness

J Appl Physiol (1985). 2007 Apr;102(4):1313-22. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.01572.2005. Epub 2006 Oct 5.


Acetazolamide, a potent carbonic anhydrase (CA) inhibitor, is the most commonly used and best-studied agent for the amelioration of acute mountain sickness (AMS). The actual mechanisms by which acetazolamide reduces symptoms of AMS, however, remain unclear. Traditionally, acetazolamide's efficacy has been attributed to inhibition of CA in the kidneys, resulting in bicarbonaturia and metabolic acidosis. The result is offsetting hyperventilation-induced respiratory alkalosis and allowance of chemoreceptors to respond more fully to hypoxic stimuli at altitude. Studies performed on both animals and humans, however, have shown that this explanation is unsatisfactory and that the efficacy of acetazolamide in the context of AMS is likely due to a multitude of effects. This review summarizes the known systemic effects of acetazolamide and incorporates them into a model encompassing several factors that are likely to play a key role in the drug's efficacy. Such factors include not only metabolic acidosis resulting from renal CA inhibition but also improvements in ventilation from tissue respiratory acidosis, improvements in sleep quality from carotid body CA inhibition, and effects of diuresis.

Publication types

  • Editorial
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acetazolamide / administration & dosage*
  • Adaptation, Physiological / drug effects
  • Altitude Sickness / drug therapy
  • Altitude Sickness / physiopathology*
  • Altitude Sickness / prevention & control*
  • Carbonic Anhydrase Inhibitors / administration & dosage*
  • Humans
  • Oxygen / metabolism*
  • Oxygen Consumption / drug effects*


  • Carbonic Anhydrase Inhibitors
  • Acetazolamide
  • Oxygen