13

In Colorado outdoor stores its not uncommon to see these small canisters of 95% percent oxygen that's sold to help people cope with high altitude.

Is there any evidence that these actually help with altitude sickness? I mean plenty of places still sell the Sawyer Venom extractor kits and there is no evidence those work.

  • 1
    You can find evidence if you look at the various treatment methods used by medical professionals. Virtually all of them include either directly (e.g. application of supplemental O2 or drugs that increase breathing rate) or indirectly (remove patient to lower altitude) increasing the oxygen saturation of the patient's' body. The cerebral and pulmonary edema common with altitude sickness is caused by lower oxygen levels than what the patient has been acclimated to... – Jimmy Fix-it Jun 21 at 19:17
  • 2
    @renesis; no, emergency responders (EMTs) in the US typically administer O2 via mask at 15 liters per minute. A severe case of altitude sickness (resulting in altered consciousness or other tangible life-threatening symptoms) would be treated that way. – Jimmy Fix-it Jun 21 at 23:29
  • 2
    @JimmyFix-it I assume you know what you are talking about. I probably misheard or the nurse herself was mistaken. – renesis Jun 21 at 23:35
  • 4
    I think there is something that's been overlooked. Nowhere does Boost claim that their products help with altitude sickness. All they have is testimonials saying it helped with super mild symptoms in poorly-acclimatized people, not sick people. So the question in bold isn't even something the manufacturer claims. If they could, you can bet they would plaster their website with stats. That fact alone is enough for me to file this in the "it's probably BS" cabinet. – Gabriel C. Jun 22 at 0:05
  • 2
    @renesis, perhaps not. For non-emergency medical applications (which protocols I am much less familiar with) O2 is used for people with chronic problems (e.g. COPD, compromised lung function, etc.). I would think that someone using it all the time would have it dialed down to that needed to keep their SpO2 levels up. – Jimmy Fix-it Jun 22 at 0:06
11

There is some evidence that increasing the concentration oxygen in the air breathed can help with mild symptoms of altitude sickness.

Source here looks at long-term increases in oxygen concentration at high elevation and finds benefits--whether or not the same happens with short bursts from a canister is unclear. I have heard circumstantial evidence from friends in the skiing world that a hit from the oxygen canister works pretty well for mild exhaustion after a hike at 13,000 ft or so.

Since one of the main causes of altitude sickness is the reduced partial pressure of oxygen at elevation, increasing the ratio of oxygen to other gases in the air should help a bit, to an extent. Of course, when the pressure is really low, no matter how high the concentration or O2, the partial pressure will never be enough.

I'd also add that the source in Gabriel's answer is about hyperoxia at sea level, not how to mitigate hypoxyia at elevation. Then again, Gabriel is probably right that stores carry them because they sell, not because they necessarily work.

Edit re: how many breaths is the canister "useful" for: At sea level where atmospheric pressure is 760mmHg and O2 concentration is 21% the partial pressure is about 160mmHg. By 10,000 feet, that drops to about 110mmHg. To maintain sea-level partial pressure of O2, you'd need to be breathing about 30% O2 instead of 20%, which means 1.5 times as much.

So for each 0.5L breath of 21% oxygen air at 10,000ft, you'd need to inhale an additional 0.052L of 95% oxygen to get the same inhaled partial pressures as sea level. The 10L can would give you 192 hits of this volume. This fits nearly with the 200 breaths advertised!

Obviously, at higher elevations, you'd need more oxygen, but since these are mostly sold at ski resorts where 9,000-12,000ft is the norm, the 200 advertised servings per container seems reasonable.

  • 2
    "Of course, when the pressure is really low, no matter how high the concentration or O2, the partial pressure will never be enough." Only if the oxygen is being delivered at local ambient atmospheric pressure; if delivered at higher pressure than the local air (for instance, via a pressure-demand mask like those used by pilots of very-high-altitude aircraft), an acceptably-high partial pressure of oxygen is attainable no matter how high you go. – Sean Jun 22 at 21:58
  • 1
    That is a very good point. I (carelessly) assumed that when you breathe out of one of these canisters it's not significantly altering the local pressure on your lungs. I have absolutely no idea if that's true or not! – jhch Jun 24 at 19:01
6

TL;DR summary: There is no evidence that these particular products help with acute mountain sickness.


It's difficult to answer the question because the manufacturer for the linked product makes absolutely no claim to the effect that their product helps with altitude sickness. The only direct praises for alleviating acute mountain sickness is from testimonials. This is far from being hard evidence, and there's a disclaimer at the bottom of every page on their site stating:

Boost Oxygen is 95% pure, Aviator’s Breathing Oxygen. It is not a substitute for individuals who have been prescribed Medical Oxygen (over 99% concentration) for health reasons. It is solely intended for recreational use. Any statements provided have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and, as such, are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

In their FAQ, you cannot find any claim to actual benefits, even towards enhancing performance. In fact, there is this statement:

Boost Oxygen states that it is “NOT for medical or prescription use.” What does this mean? Oxygen therapies that are prescribed by a medical doctor to treat medical conditions are completely different from Boost Oxygen. Boost Oxygen is recreational Aviator’s Breathing Oxygen (95% pure), not USP medical oxygen (defined as 99.2% or above). Although both are produced in the same manner, recreational oxygen is designed for healthy people looking to experience the benefits of recreational oxygen in the different facets of their life. It is not intended for use by anyone who has asthma, lung ailments or heart problems, or as a substitute for physician-prescribed or life-saving oxygen.

In this independent study from 2014 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, the conclusion seems to be that it's no better than placebo:

Introduction (excerpt)

Oxygen supplementation has often been used as an aid for athletic individuals who ascend to high altitudes before acclimatization or experience symptoms of altitude sickness. The effectiveness of oxygen supplementation in augmenting arterial blood oxygen levels [...] could have contributed to hyperoxia supplements, gaining popularity in the ergogenic aid market. [...] However, the efficacy of such products is in need of evaluation. There is increasing need for additional research to determine the efficacy of such products due to the fact that hyperoxic supplements are being made available to the general public, with promises of enhancing exercise performance and recovery.

Conclusion (excerpt)

As was previously stated, hyperoxia supplements are gaining popularity in the ergogenic aid market with a number of manufacturers supporting the use of personal oxygen cylinders to augment sports performance, and the aim of this study was to explore the efficacy of such products. The present investigation does not support the use of personal OSs for exercise performance, exercise recovery, or postexercise cognitive performance. It is important that strength and conditioning professionals are armed with accurate and relevant data when making decisions regarding the use of supplements. Given the results of this study, personal hyperoxic products do not seem to provide the desired results that would be expected from an effective ergogenic aid. Athletes, coaches, trainers, and recreational exercisers are encouraged to consider the results of this study when considering the use of similar supplements.

Usually, the reason stores carry these even if there's no proven health benefit is because there is demand, and they are harmless in themselves.

  • 1
    IANAMD but, the question is not about using supplemental oxygen to induce Hyperoxia to boost performance or in post workout conditions at normal atmospheric oxygen concentrations (normal altitudes). The question is about treating Hypoxia / altitude sickness at high altitudes. The excerpt you provided is addressing a COMPLETELY different use for supplemental oxygen. – renesis Jun 21 at 20:19
  • @renesis If you take the time to read the article and check the articles it references (many do show that supplemental oxygen does help treat hypoxic symptoms), it's never in the context of low-pressure personal canisters, but as medical treatments with significant equipment. This study focuses on the exact product showcased in the question. – Gabriel C. Jun 21 at 21:49
  • 5
    Look I'm not going to argue with you, I have read the article, I do not have time to read the references. If you are saying the references indicate low pressure personal oxygen canisters are not useful for treating altitude sickness then that should be your answer. Everything else you've written is debunking their use for performance. Altitude sickness is not a lack of performance. Ergogenic = enhancing physical performance. I'm not defending their use, but this study does not evaluate them for the use in question. IE: "Is there any evidence that these actually help with altitude sickness?" – renesis Jun 21 at 22:09
  • 2
    @renesis Thanks for distinguishing between altitude sickness and reduction in energy and performance. I have never experienced altitude sickness (e.g., nausea, trouble sleeping, headache, loss of appetite) but always experience a reduction in energy for at least several days. I don't know if sniffing O2 would have helped (See this Q. I wish more people here would not automatically assume that feeling non-energetic means one is sick. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Jun 22 at 1:41
  • I think there's an important difference between "the manufacturer makes no claim" that these help with altitude sickness and "there is no evidence" that these help with altitude sickness. The disclaimers you cite are just liability protection, and help ensure they don't have to go through the FDA drug approval process (which can cost millions). – jhch Jun 24 at 19:06
4

While not sure about the medical backing, from personal experience I once had HAPE and my oxygen reached 62% SpO2 by the time I was at the ER. I had one of those style canisters and I think it definitely helped during the 45 min between buying it and getting to the ER. I was using it fairly constantly during that time period though not just a single air shot as you see advertised. While I can't say conclusively what my SpO2 level would have been, it possibly would have been lower than 62%.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.