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J Appl Physiol (1985). 2005 Mar;98(3):1101-10.

Physiological aspects of high-altitude pulmonary edema.

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  • 1Department of Internal Medicine VII, Division of Sports Medicine, Medical University Hospital Heidelberg, Im Neuenheimer Feld 410, D-69120 Heidelberg, Germany.


High-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) develops in rapidly ascending nonacclimatized healthy individuals at altitudes above 3,000 m. An excessive rise in pulmonary artery pressure (PAP) preceding edema formation is the crucial pathophysiological factor because drugs that lower PAP prevent HAPE. Measurements of nitric oxide (NO) in exhaled air, of nitrites and nitrates in bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) fluid, and forearm NO-dependent endothelial function all point to a reduced NO availability in hypoxia as a major cause of the excessive hypoxic PAP rise in HAPE-susceptible individuals. Studies using right heart catheterization or BAL in incipient HAPE have demonstrated that edema is caused by an increased microvascular hydrostatic pressure in the presence of normal left atrial pressure, resulting in leakage of large-molecular-weight proteins and erythrocytes across the alveolarcapillary barrier in the absence of any evidence of inflammation. These studies confirm in humans that high capillary pressure induces a high-permeability-type lung edema in the absence of inflammation, a concept first introduced under the term "stress failure." Recent studies using microspheres in swine and magnetic resonance imaging in humans strongly support the concept and primacy of nonuniform hypoxic arteriolar vasoconstriction to explain how hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction occurring predominantly at the arteriolar level can cause leakage. This compelling but as yet unproven mechanism predicts that edema occurs in areas of high blood flow due to lesser vasoconstriction. The combination of high flow at higher pressure results in pressures, which exceed the structural and dynamic capacity of the alveolar capillary barrier to maintain normal alveolar fluid balance.

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