Altitude sickness

What is Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness, also known as mountain sickness, is a disorder caused as a result of the decrease of oxygen to the body at above sea level altitudes ranging starting at or about 1500 meters.  It is when the body just cannot adjust to a high altitude.

Mild forms of acute altitude sickness lead to loss of appetite, headaches and problems with regular sleep. To many people, the experience seems very similar to a hangover.  The severe form of mountain sickness can be fatal. Fluid build-up in the lungs prevents a person from breathing air and can lead to death in a matter hours. That’s why it is extremely important to pinpoint signs of altitude sickness as soon as possible and react.

Many people underestimate the problem or think that being well-trained  and fit makes it impossible for them to be affected by this problem. Unfortunately, it is impossible to predict who is more likely to develop severe symptoms, and therefore, caution is essential

What are the Symptoms of Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness symptoms will start to appear within a short period of moving to a higher altitude. They can vary depending on the severity of the condition.

Symptoms include

  • Headaches and jaw pain
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle and general body aches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Swollen hands, legs and feet
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Feeling short of breath

In more severe cases, Altitude sickness can affect vital organs and the nervous system.

The two most serious consequences are pulmonary and brain edema that require immediate descent and treatment.

Altitude Sickness Causes

Altitude sickness is caused by lack of oxygen and occurs when you ascend to high altitudes too quickly. Generally, it occurs between 4,800 and 11,200 feet. At these higher altitudes, some people are unable to breathe in and absorb enough oxygen into the bloodstream.

During the physiological events prior to altitude sickness, your body fails to acclimate to higher elevations. As a result, you experience altitude sickness, due to breathing in thinner air that is less oxygen-saturated. Most instances of altitude sickness occur at 8,000 feet. In fact, 20 per cent of skiers, hikers and other adventurers who reach 8,000 and 18,000 feet get altitude sickness. Above 18,000 feet, the odds increase to 50 per cent.

If you haven’t experienced altitude sickness, you have a low risk of getting it. Slower ascents also cause fewer cases of altitude sickness. For example, if you take more than two days to climb to 8,200 or 9,800 feet, you are less likely to get altitude sickness.

If you have had altitude sickness in the past, you are more likely to develop it again, especially if you climb more than 1,600 feet per day.

How is Altitude Sickness Treated?

If a person is hiking or mountain climbing and feeling the symptoms of Altitude Sickness, they should immediately descend to a lower height.  In extreme circumstances, someone suffering from sudden Altitude sickness as a result of flight may need to seek first aid while they are in flight.

Most flight attendants are required to be trained in first-aid.  Most people who travel regularly by air may experience very mild symptoms of Altitude Sickness.  Infrequent travelers that might suffer from the symptoms of Altitude Sickness might want to inquire with their doctor to ensure they can safely fly.

Do not hesitate to also contact the airline you might use to see what kinds of protocols and first aid measures they have in place to help those who are potentially suffering from Altitude sickness.

Altitude Sickness Prevention

To prevent altitude sickness, you can give your body time to acclimate to increasing altitude. To avoid acute mountain sickness, the drug acetazolamide can be prescribed by your doctor.

If you make yourself aware of the early warning signs, you can often avoid acute altitude sickness. If you have symptoms, don’t camp at a higher altitude to sleep for the night. Monitor early warning symptoms and descend to lower altitudes if symptoms get worse or don’t improve. Proper hydration is vital to lower your risk. Also, avoid alcohol and caffeine, since both contribute to dehydration.

To stay safe while mountain climbing, pack proper equipment and gear. For example, bring clothing and supportive footwear for all types of weather conditions. The best way to prevent altitude illnesses is letting your body slowly get used to the higher altitude. Consider a portable oxygen supply to increase the oxygen in your bloodstream and lower your risk.

In case of a severe headache, descend about 3,000 feet and seek medical attention.

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Last Reviewed:
September 30, 2016
Last Updated:
June 11, 2018
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