Effect of Dexamethasone on Nocturnal Oxygenation in Lowlanders With Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Traveling to 3100 Meters: A Randomized Clinical Trial

JAMA Netw Open. 2019 Feb 1;2(2):e190067. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.0067.


Importance: During mountain travel, patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are at risk of experiencing severe hypoxemia, in particular, during sleep.

Objective: To evaluate whether preventive dexamethasone treatment improves nocturnal oxygenation in lowlanders with COPD at 3100 m.

Design, setting, and participants: A randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind, parallel trial was performed from May 1 to August 31, 2015, in 118 patients with COPD (forced expiratory volume in the first second of expiration [FEV1] >50% predicted, pulse oximetry at 760 m ≥92%) who were living at altitudes below 800 m. The study was conducted at a university hospital (760 m) and high-altitude clinic (3100 m) in Tuja-Ashu, Kyrgyz Republic. Patients underwent baseline evaluation at 760 m, were taken by bus to the clinic at 3100 m, and remained at the clinic for 2 days and nights. Participants were randomized 1:1 to receive either dexamethasone, 4 mg, orally twice daily or placebo starting 24 hours before ascent and while staying at 3100 m. Data analysis was performed from September 1, 2015, to December 31, 2016.

Interventions: Dexamethasone, 4 mg, orally twice daily (dexamethasone total daily dose, 8 mg) or placebo starting 24 hours before ascent and while staying at 3100 m.

Main outcomes and measures: Difference in altitude-induced change in nocturnal mean oxygen saturation measured by pulse oximetry (Spo2) during night 1 at 3100 m between patients receiving dexamethasone and those receiving placebo was the primary outcome and was analyzed according to the intention-to-treat principle. Other outcomes were apnea/hypopnea index (AHI) (mean number of apneas/hypopneas per hour of time in bed), subjective sleep quality measured by a visual analog scale (range, 0 [extremely bad] to 100 [excellent]), and clinical evaluations.

Results: Among the 118 patients included, 18 (15.3%) were women; the median (interquartile range [IQR]) age was 58 (52-63) years; and FEV1 was 91% predicted (IQR, 73%-103%). In 58 patients receiving placebo, median nocturnal Spo2 at 760 m was 92% (IQR, 91%-93%) and AHI was 20.5 events/h (IQR, 12.3-48.1); during night 1 at 3100 m, Spo2 was 84% (IQR, 83%-85%) and AHI was 39.4 events/h (IQR, 19.3-66.2) (P < .001 both comparisons vs 760 m). In 60 patients receiving dexamethasone, Spo2 at 760 m was 92% (IQR, 91%-93%) and AHI was 25.9 events/h (IQR, 16.3-37.1); during night 1 at 3100 m, Spo2 was 86% (IQR, 84%-88%) (P < .001 vs 760 m) and AHI was 24.7 events/h (IQR, 13.2-33.7) (P = .99 vs 760 m). Altitude-induced decreases in Spo2 during night 1 were mitigated by dexamethasone vs placebo by a mean of 3% (95% CI, 2%-3%), and increases in AHI were reduced by 18.7 events/h (95% CI, 12.0-25.3). Similar effects were observed during night 2. Subjective sleep quality was improved with dexamethasone during night 2 by 12% (95% CI, 0%-23%). Sixteen (27.6%) patients using dexamethasone had asymptomatic hyperglycemia.

Conclusions and relevance: In lowlanders in Central Asia with COPD traveling to a high altitude, preventive dexamethasone treatment improved nocturnal oxygen saturation, sleep apnea, and subjective sleep quality.

Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT02450994.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Altitude
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents* / pharmacology
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents* / therapeutic use
  • Dexamethasone* / pharmacology
  • Dexamethasone* / therapeutic use
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mountaineering / physiology*
  • Oximetry
  • Oxygen / blood*
  • Oxygen / metabolism
  • Oxygen Consumption / drug effects
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / drug therapy*


  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents
  • Dexamethasone
  • Oxygen

Associated data

  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT02450994