In a previous controlled study, dexamethasone (DEX) was shown to prevent acute mountain sickness (AMS) during exposure to simulated high altitude. To determine the effect of DEX during actual altitude exposure, 16 young men were treated with either DEX (4 mg every 6 h) or placebo for 48 h prior to and 48 h after being rapidly transported from sea level to the summit of Pikes Peak, CO (4,300 m). Symptoms of AMS were evaluated twice daily at Pikes Peak using the Environmental Symptoms Questionnaire and a clinical assessment. During treatment the mean symptom scores were higher for subjects taking placebo in 18 out of 20 comparisons. On an individual basis, 60% of the subjects receiving placebo met the criteria for being "sick" compared to 31% of subjects receiving DEX. Beginning 24 h after cessation of treatment, DEX subjects experienced a progressive increase in symptom scores which lasted through the end of the altitude sojourn (day 6). The results indicate that DEX is an effective prophylactic treatment for AMS in an actual mountain environment, but that AMS symptoms can occur if the drug is stopped abruptly.