Physiology in Medicine: A physiologic approach to prevention and treatment of acute high-altitude illnesses

J Appl Physiol (1985). 2015 Mar 1;118(5):509-19. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00955.2014. Epub 2014 Dec 24.


With the growing interest in adventure travel and the increasing ease and affordability of air, rail, and road-based transportation, increasing numbers of individuals are traveling to high altitude. The decline in barometric pressure and ambient oxygen tensions in this environment trigger a series of physiologic responses across organ systems and over a varying time frame that help the individual acclimatize to the low oxygen conditions but occasionally lead to maladaptive responses and one or several forms of acute altitude illness. The goal of this Physiology in Medicine article is to provide information that providers can use when counseling patients who present to primary care or travel medicine clinics seeking advice about how to prevent these problems. After discussing the primary physiologic responses to acute hypoxia from the organ to the molecular level in normal individuals, the review describes the main forms of acute altitude illness--acute mountain sickness, high-altitude cerebral edema, and high-altitude pulmonary edema--and the basic approaches to their prevention and treatment of these problems, with an emphasis throughout on the physiologic basis for the development of these illnesses and their management.

Keywords: altitude illness; cerebral edema; hypoxia; hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction; pulmonary edema; ventilatory response to hypoxia.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization / physiology*
  • Acute Disease
  • Altitude
  • Altitude Sickness / drug therapy
  • Altitude Sickness / physiopathology*
  • Altitude Sickness / prevention & control
  • Animals
  • Atmospheric Pressure
  • Humans
  • Hypertension, Pulmonary / physiopathology
  • Hypoxia / physiopathology

Supplementary concepts

  • Pulmonary edema of mountaineers