If you’ve shopped at a Colorado grocery store or gas station this year, you’ve probably seen it: A little green and silver can with the words Boost Oxygen clearly visible on the can. These little green cans are becoming ubiquitous throughout the state, advertised as a cure-all for anything and everything. They supposedly improve athletic performance, cure hangovers, and can even help prevent or treat altitude sickness. However, the company does not back up any of these claims with any studies conducted using their own product. So what’s the truth? Does Boost Oxygen help with altitude sickness? Or is it a scam? Here’s what the best available science says.
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Altitude Sickness 101: An Introduction
In case you aren’t an expert on altitude sickness, this is a general term for the symptoms that affect people when they reach around 6,000 feet or higher. The air gets thinner, with less oxygen per square foot at higher altitudes, and this oxygen deficiency causes significant issues. A 2008 study found that 52% of those who reach 14,500 feet get some degree of altitude sickness, making it a relatively common problem. Acclimating to prevent it takes time and effort, so many people look for easier solutions, like canned oxygen, to deal with it. But do these “easier” solutions actually make an impact? Does Boost Oxygen help with altitude sickness? Let’s find out!
Does Boost Oxygen actually treat or prevent altitude sickness?
Regarding altitude sickness, the best place to look for data is among those who treat this condition professionally. Most medical guidelines call for treating altitude sickness with two liters of 99% medical-grade oxygen per minute continually. This won’t cure the condition, but putting someone on supplemental oxygen provides time to get them to a lower elevation to address the root cause.
This is the inherent reason that Boost Oxygen does not work to address altitude sickness – it provides too little oxygen (10 liters at most), at too low a concentration (95% vs. 99% medical grade), to make a long-term impact. It would provide five minutes to get to a lower elevation, which isn’t likely to make a difference in the field. Doctors in multiple interviews agree that Boost is not an effective treatment for altitude sickness, nor is it a substitute for proper acclimation.
CU Denver recently put out a significant rebuttal suggesting any improvement is due to the placebo effect. Dr. Ben Honigman, an emergency medicine physician wrote that, “I believe, personally, that it’s a placebo effect, and it has nothing to do with physiology.”
So to answer the question “Does Boost Oxygen help with altitude sickness,” I would say the answer is a solid NO. If anything, it can make the situation worse.
Boost Oxygen actually acknowledges this, likely to avoid lawsuits with a disclaimer hidden away at the bottom of their website footer. It states, “As it is not medical-grade oxygen, not a drug, and not intended for the treatment of any medical condition or disease, it is neither regulated nor approved by the FDA and thus the Agency has not assessed any of the statements herein. Consult your physician if you have any medical conditions.”
I recommend taking their advice and talking to your doctor about your altitude sickness concerns.
Boost Oxygen Provides a Dangerous Sense of and Self-Confidence
In a worst-case scenario, Boost Oxygen can actually lead you into a more dangerous situation by providing a false sense of security. If you begin to experience altitude sickness symptoms like a headache or confusion, the smart move is to descend immediately. However, someone with Boost might decide to continue their ascent, with a few inhalations of Boost to help lessen the impact.
While the oxygen might work for 5-10 minutes, you will soon run out of oxygen, except now the symptoms will hit you with a bigger punch as you’re higher up than you were before. This is the main reason you do not see professional mountaineers using oxygen at these elevations. They know that it won’t make a difference, and acclimation is the best option by far.
Additionally, some doctors believe Boost Oxygen and similar products can actually slow down the acclimatization process by continually re-introducing you to higher concentrations of oxygen that reduce the need for your body to adapt – essentially resetting the process.
What About All the Boost Oxygen Reviews I Read Online?
You might be wondering, “what about all the reviews I read that claim they feel great after using Boost Oxygen?” I do not doubt that many people feel better after taking a breath of 95% oxygen. The placebo effect is a powerful phenomenon and is more potent when people try more novel treatments. Breathing in supplemental oxygen is a new experience for most people, which means it is especially primed to create a placebo effect.
Additionally, speaking from experience, I can attest that Boost Oxygen and similar companies pay many outdoor guides and writers to “review” their products and provide them a share of the profits made through their reviews. This bias makes it hard to take their reviews seriously, especially since they are not legally obligated to share that they are being reimbursed. Read these reviews with a healthy bit of skepticism.
What's the Best Way to Address Altitude Sickness?
Unfortunately, altitude sickness is a stubborn condition to treat once it arises. The only way to address the symptoms completely and quickly is to descend to a lower elevation to restore adequate oxygen levels in your body. Thus, most people focus on preventing altitude sickness in the first place rather than waiting to address it once it begins. The best strategies for preventing altitude sickness include:
- Spending 1-2 nights sleeping at elevations between 6,000 and 9,000 feet before hikes and climbs.
- Getting good sleep, staying adequately hydrated, and avoiding alcohol.
- Getting a prescription of Acetazolamide (Diamox) from your doctor – especially if you have previous experiences with altitude sickness.
Altitude sickness affects everyone differently, and some people appear especially susceptible while others have a degree of natural resistance. Take extra caution on your first time at high elevation to help determine how you’ll react.
Does Boost Oxygen Help with Altitude Sickness? Now You Know!
While the idea of canned oxygen seems like a good one, it begins to make a lot less sense when you consider all the facts. Treating altitude sickness would require using two 5-liter cans every five minutes. That means you would need twelve cans just to spend thirty minutes descending to a lower elevation. Most backpacks aren’t even big enough to hold ten cans – let alone twelve, and all your gear.
On your next fourteener hike or climb, do yourself a favor and leave the Boost Oxygen at home. The extra weight is not worth it, and could lead you into more dangerous situations through a false sense of security. Stick to acclimating the right way and you’ll be fine. I hope I helped you answer the question “Does Boost Oxygen help with Altitude Sickness?” Safe travels on the trail!
Does Boost Oxygen Help with Altitude Sickness? Additional Resources
Looking for more information? These additional links and articles were helpful for me while I was trying to answer the question “Does Boost Oxygen help with altitude sickness?” If you have a suggestion for another resource leave it in the comment section below and it might get included in our next article update.
- Do Over-the-Counter Oxygen Cans Work?
- The Tricky Business of Treating Altitude Sickness
- Quandary: Oxygen cans, altitude sickness and home remedies (Q&A column)
- Fact or Fad: Oxygen in a Can
Disclaimer: While writing this article I reached out to Boost Oxygen to ask for any studies or data that prove their assertion that their oxygen prevents or treats altitude sickness. They sent me an article that says it improves athletic performance at sea level. When I pointed out that was not my question, they did not respond to further attempts at clarification, and eventually blocked me on Twitter when I continued to ask.