A good friend in Hawaii recently sent me a YouTube video referencing Dr. Cameron Kyle-Sidell, a critical care and emergency room physician at Maimonides Medical Center in NYC. Dr. Kyle-Sidell was discussing his findings while working with COVID-19 patients in NYC and compared those findings to altitude sickness. I did a search and found he had posted several videos on social media comparing Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) in COVID-19 patients to altitude sickness and reconsidering how these patients are treated. Altitude sickness is something I see and treat frequently here in Summit County. Based on the similarities between the two conditions, the same treatment for altitude sickness and high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) may be beneficial to COVID-19 patients.
In an interview with Dr. John Whyte, Dr. Kyle-Sidell described the acute ARDS he is seeing in COVID-19 patients as atypical and not responsive to standard treatment, specifically in regards to ventilator use and settings. He describes some of his patients as alert, talking in full sentences, and not complaining of shortness of breath but have oxygen saturation levels in the 70s (John Whyte & Cameron Kyle-Sidell, 2020). Normally, that is not the case when a person has an O2 saturation in the 70s and is in respiratory distress. However, this is not abnormal in patients with altitude sickness and HAPE. There are certain protocols in hospitals regarding when to intubate a person and to put them on a ventilator. According to Dr. Kyle-Sidell, these protocols apparently aren’t always helpful for COVID-19 patients with ARDS, and can at times be harmful.
The similarities between findings with COVID-19 and HAPE are remarkable. These similarities include: hypoxia (low oxygen levels), low CO2 (carbon dioxide) levels, tachypnea (rapid respiratory rate), patchy infiltrates seen on chest x-ray, bilateral ground glass appearing opacities on chest CT, fibrinogen levels/fibrin formation, aveolar compromise, decreased Pao2:FiO2 ratios, and ARDS in severe disease (Solaimanzadeh, 2020). Noting these similarities may be helpful when approaching treatments for COVID-19. Acetazolamide (Diamox), Nifedipine (Procardia) and Phosphodiesterase inhibitors (Viagra, Cialis etc.) have been used in treating HAPE and could possibly be beneficial in treating COVID-19. For example, Acetazolamide potently decreases the constriction of small vessels in the lungs that contribute to fluid build up (edema) seen in both HAPE and COVID-19 patients (Solaimanzadeh, 2020).
In our house call practice, we treat quite a bit of altitude sickness due to our elevation here in Summit County. During the ski season, we may see 3-4 patients per month that develop HAPE. The majority of the time, these patients can be safely treated and monitored in their residence or hotel room. Treatment for both altitude sickness and HAPE consists of oxygen, usually 2-5 L/min via nasal cannula continuously while sleeping or resting. We also treat our patients with an injection of a steroid, Dexamethasone. We closely monitor them and may repeat the dose of Dexamethasone or prescribe an oral steroid. These patients usually see some improvement by the next day and significant improvement when they descend in altitude. I have read recommendations for and against steroid use with COVID-19. More studies need to be done, which I will be following closely as future recommendations may change how I treat HAPE when there is also a suspicion of COVID-19.
The key to treatment is oxygen! We’ve seen patients with O2 saturation levels in the 40s and 50s and lungs that sound like a “washing machine”, as Dr. Gray, has described it (in a previous Doc Talk article). If we can get their oxygen saturation up into the mid 80s or 90s on 5L/min (of O2) or less via nasal cannula, typically, they can avoid an ambulance ride and emergency room visit. As Dr. Kyle-Sidell notes, many of the COVID-19 patients he sees are talking coherently and not in severe respiratory distress. A friend who is an EMT in New York described a man he recently transported to the hospital, in his 50’s, with presumed COVID-19. He had no respiratory distress, walking and talking coherently, no chronic medical problems but his oxygen saturation was in the 60s. He said they took him to the emergency room and he was intubated and placed on a ventilator. Apparently, this is a common occurrence from what he has seen. I am still amazed when a patient calls, gives me their address and directions to where they are staying and when I arrive, their oxygen levels are in the 40s. It is a very rare occurrence that I need to send a patient to the hospital, which they always appreciate. We monitor our patients very closely until their departure and have them call anytime, day or night, with any changes in condition.
Dr. David Gray, who started our business, has been treating these patients for over 18 years. He states that in a few of the HAPE patients that he has treated, including his own 13-year-old son, he has seen O2 saturations in the 30’s & 40’s. In these few patients, he was only able to get their O2 saturation up to high 60’s, low 70’s, on 5 liters. They were so much improved, clinically, that he accepted those levels. A large dose of Dexamethasone & 12 hours of rest, on nasal oxygen, resulted in marked improvement by the next day, every single time. His rule, as in patients with DKA, is “if the pathology didn’t happen rapidly, you don’t necessarily have to reverse it rapidly.”
Dr. Kyle-Sidell suggests not putting COVID-19 patients on ventilators based solely on numbers (John Whyte & Cameron Kyle-Sidell, 2020). Treating these patients with prone positioning, oxygen via nasal cannula, high flow on a non-rebreather mask or CPAP along with careful monitoring and a little patience may be preferable to a ventilator (John Whyte et al, 2020). If a ventilator is needed, using less pressure to reduce lung damage and higher oxygen levels may prove to increase the likelihood of a better outcome (John Whyte et al, 2020). There is so much to learn about COVID-19 and how to treat it. Treating it as you would with HAPE is certainly something to consider. I appreciate providers who are sharing their personal experiences in treating these patients. As healthcare providers gain more experience treating this virus and share their experiences, protocols will change and I suspect ventilator use as well as the death rate will decrease.
 A complication of altitude sickness in where the lungs fill with fluid and small amounts of blood
 Blood oxygen level
 Damage to the tiny sacks in the lungs where gas exchange occurs
 partial pressure of arterial oxygen: percentage of inspired oxygen ratio used to determine ARDS and lung damage
 Continuous positive airway pressure
Danielle Shook MSN, NP-C is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner. She has been in nursing for over 27 years. She earned her Master’s Degree at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs through Beth El School of Nursing. Her nursing experience includes 10 years in Obstetrics and 7 years in Hospice home care. She has over 9 years experience as an NP which includes Family Practice at the Air Force Academy, Urgent Care, Acute and after hours care with the Army Premier Clinic as well as house calls.
John Whyte, Cameron Kyle-Sidell. Do COVID-19 Vent Protocols Need a Second Look? – Medscape – Apr 06, 2020.
Solaimanzadeh I (March 20, 2020) Acetazolamide, Nifedipine and Phosphodiesterase Inhibitors: Rationale for Their Utilization as Adjunctive Countermeasures in the Treatment of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Cureus 12(3): e7343. doi:10.7759/cureus.7343