What Is High Altitude Pulmonary Edema?

Madeleine A.
Madeleine A.
High altitude pulmonary edema is typically seen in mountain climbers.
High altitude pulmonary edema is typically seen in mountain climbers.

High altitude pulmonary edema is a serious, and sometimes life-threatening condition that occurs at extremely high altitudes, usually above 8,200 feet. High altitude pulmonary edema causes fluid to accumulate in the lungs and is generally seen in hikers and mountain climbers. In addition to the accumulation of fluid in the lungs, symptoms include difficulty breathing while at rest, weakness, coughing, and chest congestion or tightness. Rapid heart rate, a blue-tinged color to the skin, wheezing, and fast shallow breathing can also occur.

There is less oxygen at high altitudes, which can lead to pulmonary edema.
There is less oxygen at high altitudes, which can lead to pulmonary edema.

A shortage of oxygen typically causes high altitude pulmonary edema. Sometimes a genetic predisposition is a risk factor in the development of high altitude pulmonary edema, but typically there are no identifiable risk factors for this condition. Treatment for high altitude pulmonary edema is to quickly descend the patient to a lower altitude. Oxygen therapy should also be instituted promptly. When these treatments are efficiently carried out, symptoms typically resolve, however, some symptoms may persist for a few days.

Frothy sputum may be a symptom of a rapidly-developing lung problem, and should be assessed by a medical doctor.
Frothy sputum may be a symptom of a rapidly-developing lung problem, and should be assessed by a medical doctor.

Steroids may help reduce pulmonary inflammation and relieve symptoms. Another medication known as tadalafil may also help speed recovery, however, this medication can sometimes cause headaches. High altitude pulmonary edema is a form of altitude sickness that can also cause the coughing up of frothy and sometimes blood-tinged sputum. Preventing altitude sickness may not be possible, but measures can be taken to reduce the risk, such as ascending slowly, and allowing the body to become acclimated to the higher altitude.

People who have experienced high altitude pulmonary edema in the past are more at risk for getting it again. People who have existing infections or cold symptoms may also be at risk, as may those who exercise vigorously. Certain medications that might be helpful in reversing this condition may include sildenafil, which can widen the blood vessels of the lungs, facilitating breathing. This medication, however, should never be taken unless under the strict supervision of a qualified health care professional.

The most important way to treat this condition, however, is getting the patient down to a lower altitude. It is wise to have a waiting ambulance and qualified personnel at the base of the mountain to treat the patient at the scene, then transport him to the nearest hospital for further treatment. If treatment is instituted quickly, the prognosis is generally favorable.

Discussion Comments

anon245076

At what altitude will humans start to struggle to breathe unaided by breathing devices?

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    • High altitude pulmonary edema is typically seen in mountain climbers.
      By: Alila Medical Media
      High altitude pulmonary edema is typically seen in mountain climbers.
    • There is less oxygen at high altitudes, which can lead to pulmonary edema.
      By: Calin Tatu
      There is less oxygen at high altitudes, which can lead to pulmonary edema.
    • Frothy sputum may be a symptom of a rapidly-developing lung problem, and should be assessed by a medical doctor.
      By: jovannig
      Frothy sputum may be a symptom of a rapidly-developing lung problem, and should be assessed by a medical doctor.