Do Oxygen Tanks Help With Altitude Sickness?

Do Oxygen Tanks Help With Altitude Sickness

If you ever find yourself at altitude or have an upcoming mountain trek, you might wonder if oxygen help with altitude sickness. After all, most people want to know how to avoid altitude sickness and some try canned oxygen when they are suffering from altitude sickness. Don't worry — we'll answer do oxygen tanks help with altitude sickness and if it's something you should try.

What Causes Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness, or acute mountain sickness (AMS), occurs when you cannot get enough oxygen from the air at high altitudes. This causes symptoms such as a headache, loss of appetite, and trouble sleeping. I

It happens most often when people who are not used to high altitudes go quickly from lower altitudes to 8000 feet (2500 meters) or higher. For example, you may get a headache when you drive over a high mountain pass, hike to a high altitude, or arrive at a mountain resort.

Symptoms usually begin 12 to 24 hours after reaching the altitude and usually go away in 1 to 2 days as your body gets used to the altitude. Symptoms may include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling sick to your stomach
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Irregular breathing or breathing issues

If you have severe symptoms of AMS, it could lead to life-threatening conditions such as high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE). You'll need to be treated in a hospital. In rare cases, AMS can lead to fluid building up in your lungs or brain. This can be fatal if not treated right away. These conditions are rare and usually at extremely high altitudes even well beyond 8000 feet that mountaineers and trekkers encounter.

Do Oxygen Tanks Help With Altitude Sickness?

In short, yes oxygen tanks help with altitude sickness, although there's more details to the answer.

There are several methods that can be used to prevent altitude sickness. One of them is using oxygen tanks, or also referenced as supplemental oxygen. This is because supplemental oxygen can help alleviate some of its symptoms and maintain sufficient levels of oxygen in your blood so as to avoid its complications.

Oxygen therapy is used for a wide variety of conditions, including COPD, asthma, and other breathing problems. Oxygen therapy is also used to treat altitude sickness.

O2 helps with altitude sickness because it provides your body with extra oxygen that it needs while climbing in elevation. When you take an O2 tank with you while climbing in elevation, your body will have access to enough oxygen to stay healthy even while moving through thinner air.

Doctors use an oxygen saturation test to measure how much oxygen the blood is carrying. Normal levels are about 95 percent at sea level, but these numbers drop as altitude increases. At 10,000 feet above sea level, oxygen saturation levels are around 85 percent. At 15,000 feet, levels drop below 80 percent. Supplemental oxygen can be used when oxygen saturation levels fall too low.

Here is the science that shows oxygen tanks help with altitude sickness:

  • The Center for Sleep and Respiratory Neurobiology in Pennslyvannia did a study showing that supplemental oxygen had  significant benefits on physiological effects of high altitude.¹
  • Supplemental oxygen was demonstrated to improve altitude sickness symptoms and increase arterial oxygen levels.¹

So do oxygen tanks help with altitude sickness? Yes. While we found oxygen tanks or supplemental oxygen do work, it's still unclear if canned oxygen has any statistically significant effect with the low, and sporadic amount and of oxygen you get from it.

For oxygen tanks or supplemental oxygen, you need an actual tank and face mask for best efficiency. Although it can be very effective, it's also a lot of added weight and inconvenient to carry up a mountain. Altitude sickness with oxygen tanks are most conveniently treated at a hospital or in a home setting.

If you want to know more about oxygen and altitude sickness, you can read our related posts on does canned oxygen help altitude sickness and do oxygen bars work for altitude sickness.

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1. Supplemental oxygen and hyperbaric treatment at high altitude: cardiac and respiratory response