1. Both hypoxia and hypocapnia can cause broncho-constriction in humans, and this could have a bearing on performance at high altitude or contribute to altitude sickness. We studied the relationship between spirometry, arterial oxygen saturation and end-tidal carbon dioxide (ETCO2) concentration in a group of healthy lowland adults during a stay at high altitude, and then evaluated the response to supplementary oxygen and administration of a β2 agonist
2. We collected spirometric data from 51 members of the 1994 British Mount Everest Medical Expedition at sea level (barometric pressure 101.2–101.6 kPa) and at Mount Everest Base Camp in Nepal (altitude 5300 m, barometric pressure 53–54.7 kPa) using a pocket turbine spirometer. A total of 205 spirometric measurements were made on the 51 subjects during the first 6 days after arrival at Base Camp. Further measurements were made before and after inhalation of oxygen (n = 47) or a β2 agonist (n = 39). ETCO2 tensions were measured on the same day as spirometric measurements in 30 of these subjects.
3. In the first 6 days after arrival at 5300 m, lower oxygen saturations were associated with lower forced expiratory volume in 1 s (FEV1; P < 0.02) and forced vital capacity (FVC; P < 0.01), but not with peak expiratory flow (PEF). Administration of supplementary oxygen for 5 min increased oxygen saturation from a mean of 81%–94%, but there was no significant change in FEV1 or FVC, whilst PEF fell by 2.3% [P < 0.001; 95% confidence intervals (CI) −4 to −0.7%]. After salbutamol administration, there was no significant change in PEF, FEV1 or FVC in 35 non-asthmatic subjects. Mean ETCO2 at Everest Base Camp was 26 mmHg, and a low ETCO2 was weakly associated with a larger drop in FVC at altitude compared with sea level (r = 0.38, P < 0.05). There was no correlation between either ETCO2 or oxygen saturation and changes in FEV1 or PEF compared with sea-level values.
4. In this study, in normal subjects who were acclimatized to hypobaric hypoxia at an altitude of 5300 m, we found no evidence of hypoxic broncho-constriction. Individuals did not have lower PEF when they were more hypoxic, and neither PEF nor FEV1 were increased by either supplementary oxygen or salbutamol. FVC fell at altitude, and there was a greater fall in FVC for subjects with lower oxygen saturations and probably lower ETCO2.