Difference between revisions of "High altitude pulmonary edema"

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Revision as of 19:15, 2 March 2020


  • Also known as HAPE
  • Noncardiogenic pulmonary edema due to increased microvascular pressure in the pulmonary circulation
  • Most lethal of the altitude illnesses
  • Occurs in <1/10,000 skiers in Colorado; 2-3% of Mt. McKinley climbers
  • Typical patient is strong and fit; may not have symptoms of altered mental status before onset of HAPE
  • Most commonly noticed on the second night at a new altitude

Risk Factors

  • Heavy exertion
  • Rapid ascent
  • Cold
  • Excessive salt ingestion
  • Use of a sleeping medication
  • Preexisting pulmonary hypertension
  • Preexisting respiratory infection (children)
  • Previous history of HAPE

Clinical Features

  • Early
    • Dry cough, decreased exercise performance, dyspnea on exertion, localized rales
    • Resting SaO2 is very low for the expected altitude but patients often appear clinically better than their saturation (aids in diagnosis)
    • Easily desaturates with exertion
  • Late

Differential Diagnosis

High Altitude Illnesses

Pulmonary Edema Types

Pulmonary capillary wedge pressure <18 mmHg differentiates noncardiogenic from cardiogenic pulmonary edema[1]


Chest x-ray of HAPE showing characteristic patchy alveolar infiltrates with right middle lobe predominance.



  • Clinical diagnosis

Expected SpO2 and PaO2 levels at altitude

Altitude SpO2 PaO2 (mm Hg)
1,500 to 3,500 m (4,900 to 11,500 ft) about 90% 55-75
3,500 to 5,500 m (11,500 to 18,000 ft) 75-85% 40-60
5,500 to 8,850 m (18,000 to 29,000 ft) 58-75% 28-40


High altitude management algorithm.
  • Immediate descent is treatment of choice - minimize exertion
  • If cannot descend use combination of:
    • Supplemental O2 - An oxygen concentrator is often used at high altitude ski resorts after the patient is titrated down to nasal cannula. A portable oxygen tank is used for ambulation. Can completely resolve the pulmonary edema within 36-72hr
    • Hyperbaric bag - (e.g. Gamow Bag). Should not delay descent, if possible.
    • Keep patient warm (cold stress elevates pulmonary artery pressure)
    • Use expiratory positive airway pressure mask
    • Nifedipine 30mg ER q12hr (or 20mg normal-release q8hr)[2]
      • May consider the other medications listed below that are usually used for prevention


  • Admission
    • Warranted for severe illness that does not respond immediately to descent
  • Discharge
    • Progressive clinical and X-ray improvement and a PaO2 of 60mmHg or SaO2>90%
  • May re-ascend in 2-3 days if mild-moderate symptoms resolved that only required descent as the intervention


  • Nifedipine 20mg q8hr or 30mg ER q12hr while ascending is effective prophylaxis in patients with prior episodes of HAPE
  • Tadalafil 10mg BID 24hr prior to ascent OR Sildenafil 50mg q8hr
  • Salmeterol 125 mcg inhaled BID
  • Acetazolamide 125mg BID for prevention of hypoxia

See Also


  1. Clark SB, Soos MP. Noncardiogenic Pulmonary Edema. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; October 1, 2020.
  2. Luks AM, McIntosh SE, Grissom CK, et al. Wilderness Medical Society Practice Guidelines for the Prevention and Treatment of Acute Altitude Illness: 2014 Update. Wilderness & Environmental Medicine. 2014(25): S4–S14)