Symptoms of Altitude Sickness: a Guide to Treatment

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If you are planning on backpacking, hiking, mountaineering, or camping sometime soon, then you may run into altitude sickness if you are not careful. Do not worry though. It is a common problem that many before you have faced and it only takes a bit of knowledge to solve. Understanding the symptoms of altitude sickness and how to treat it is just a matter of learning.

In a previous article, I introduced you to mountaineering and a bit about altitude sickness. If you are thinking about mountaineering, then it will be sure to help you with a brief overview. Otherwise, let us forge on ahead and discuss altitude sickness.

What Exactly is Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness occurs when your body experiences physical distress because of the inability to adjust to lower oxygen pressure high altitudes. In short, your body is not getting enough oxygen, most often happening when someone ascends too quickly. That is all it is, so you experience the symptoms that are described in the following section.

At higher elevations, there is less air above that which you are currently breathing, so the pressure is much lower. Consequently, the availability of oxygen drops as it is more diffused, decreasing the amount of oxygen your blood stream transports to your body’s muscles for cellular respiration needed to breakdown sugars for energy.

More often than not, 8,000ft (2,438 m) is the elevation when people start to experience altitude sickness. If you are used to living in a high elevation area, you might get it a higher level. By the same token though, people who live at lower elevations may experience it much sooner. Either way, this is so because your body has acclimatized to that elevation; your body is used to the oxygen it is currently receiving at that level.

In response, your body experiences altitude sickness. Its symptoms are described in the next section.

Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

When you experience altitude sickness, there are certain signs that clue you into whether you or someone else may have it.

  • Nausea/vomiting, this is the feeling of vomiting, queasiness. If you have ever thrown up before, then this is the sinking feeling you get just before it happens.
  • Headache, this is when you experience pain in the head. The more severe it is, the more it indicates that you have altitude sickness.
  • Shortness of breath, when you run and try to catch your breath best describes this feeling. But with shortness of breath, it is continuous. You cannot get adequate amounts of air to your lungs.
  • Inability to exercise, with little oxygen, your body becomes drained of energy. It cannot function properly without it, causing your body to slow down.
  • Lethargy is when you have a lack of energy or enthusiasm. Your body does not have the will to do anything at all when altitude sickness sets in.
  • Fatigue is sleepiness. Anyone who has ever entered into a food coma knows this feeling. You are experiencing extreme tiredness.
  • Difficulty sleeping, your body will likely be awake at night as it craves oxygen. If you sleep poorly at night while on an expedition, then that could be a sign along with any of the other symptoms listed here.
  • Loss of appetite, your body will not be asking for food. It will, though, be asking you to slow down.

You can expect to see symptoms within 12 to 24 hours of reaching a higher elevation, but your body will usually adjust within a day or two.

How Many Types of Altitude Sickness Are There?

There are three types of altitude sickness you can expect.

Acute Moutain Sickness (AMS) is the mildest form of altitude sickness. In short, it feels like a hangover. You can expect nausea, headache, shortness of breath, and muscle aches. Even it is not life threatening, it is a precursor to HAPE, which is. Immediate treatment is needed to prevent this consequence. Its symptoms include nausea/vomiting, difficulty sleeping, lethargy, fatigue, and nausea/vomiting. This is the most likely case you can expect to get and most quickly cured.

High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) is fluid accumulation in the lungs. While it is not as dangerous as HACE, it is still very much life threatening, in between both AMS and HACE in terms of severity. With HAPE, its key symptoms are shortness of breath, fatigue, confusion, and coughing. Since there is fluid in the lungs, a wet, white, gurgly cough can be expected to be seen.

High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), of all the forms of altitude sickness, this is the most severe type. In this case, there is fluid in the brain, swelling it up. If someone has HACE, they need to seek medical attention immediately as it is life threatening. Signs include an inability to walk, lack of coordination, shortness of breath, confusion, and fatigue.

How to Treat Altitude Sickness

The most immediate solution you should take is to drop down to a lower elevation, returning to a level where you slept well at without feeling any symptoms. Your body needs oxygen to refuel its cells. If you just have AMS, then you just need to drop elevation and slow down.

If you are experiencing a much more severe form of altitude sickness, like HAPE or HACE, then you need to drop down to at least 4,000 ft (1219 m) and seek immediate medical attention. Nurses and/or doctors will administer concentrated oxygen and a medicine like a steroid as needed. It is not worthwhile to be reckless when dealing with a life threatening illness.

Medications like Ibuprofen, acetaminophen and aspirin can all be used to treat altitude sickness to deal with the headache. However, it is no real fix when compared to what I discuss in the next section.

Acclimatization, the Key to Preventing Altitude Sickness

One thing runners and athletes of many other sports do to better prepare themselves for competition is to train at a higher altitude. Then, when they drop down to a lower elevation, they have much more of an edge against their opponents. These athletes are practicing acclimatization. In essence, it is when you adjust to change your environment.

When your body is acclimatizing, it will start taking steps to use oxygen more efficiently. This involves speeding up your heart rate and breathing. You can expect your red blood cell count to rise. As time goes on, you can expect your lung capacity to increase.

Key Points of Advice

These are the most important ways to acclimatize your body for that high elevation adventure.

  • Reach 8,000 ft (2,438 m) to 10,000 (3,048m) and then limit yourself to 1,000 ft (305 m) daily ascents. Your body needs time to adjust. While this may seem restrictive, you do not want to get altitude sickness and this limit keeps you safe.
  • Climb high, sleep low. When you sleep, air is going into your lungs for anywhere from six hours to nine hours a night, taking up nearly a 1/3 of your day. Consequently, the elevation you sleep at it is very influential in your acclimatization process. Just because you climbed high today does not mean you have to sleep at that elevation. Drop down to stay within the 1,000 ft (305 m) limit.
  • For every 3,000 ft (914 m), rest at least a day. Acclimatization is best when it is taken at a slow, steady pace. Consequently, the rest day is crucial for your body.
  • Drink plenty of water, at least 3-4 quarts (2.8-3.7 L) a day. When I was picking up fossils off the ground in the Turkana Basin in Kenya, I would go through 5 liters (5.2 quarts) of water a day. Temperatures could reach up to 45°C (110 °F) a day. While it probably will not be that hot at the altitude where you are climbing, your body needs all the water it can get.
  • Stay away from alcohol, tobacco, and medications like sleeping pills. All of these will slow down or inhibit your acclimatization process.
  • Everyone adapts at a different rate. No one can expect a 50-year old to adapt at the same rate as a 25-year-old. The same goes based on gender, race, and physical fitness. No two person’s bodies are exactly the same; there will always be some difference in acclimatization rate. Know your body so you can have a safe journey. In short, take your time.

A Final Word or Two

You should now be aware of all the symptoms of altitude sickness as well as how to prevent and treat it. Once you have mastered altitude sickness, you are all set to reach the mountain top and see the world from new heights. Grab your gear and start your adventure.

If you have any thoughts, questions, or think I missed anything, do not hesitate to comment below and please do share this article. Thank you so much and I hope you make it a great day!

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16 Comments on “Symptoms of Altitude Sickness: a Guide to Treatment”

  1. I found this very informative. As a mother of five boys who like to do things that scare the crap out of me, I posted this to facebook and forwarded to my kids. Thank you.

    1. It is good to hear you enjoyed this article Elaine. I can imagine five boys would like to scare their mother a lot. Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  2. Excellent information about altitude sickness. I was searching the web for this exact thing as I am planning an extended hike to Mount Whitney this summer. This will be my go to as to how to handle the climb – it is very thorough and concise. I especially like the suggestions for sleeping at a lower altitude. Thank you for this very informative site!

    1. It is good to know you found this article helpful. Mount Whitney is a great climb. I would love to ascend it someday soon. Sleeping at a lower altitude is definitely important. Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  3. I remember when I was climbing Mount Ophir in my country some time ago, I experienced nausea and dizziness.

    I am wondering whether that’s Altitude Sickness. That mountain is not as high as 8,000ft (2,438 m) though, maybe just half of it. Hmm.. or it could just due to me not being fit enough. 🙂

    Anyway you mentioned about staying away from alcohol, tobacco and medication. How long before the climb should we stop taking those?

    1. Oh Wow! Mount Ophir is in Malaysia. (I had to look that one up!) It is not uncommon for people to experience altitude sickness at lower elevations. Depending on what altitude you are living in, you could experience altitude sickness sooner or later on the mountain.

      Your question is a good one. For mountaineering, you need to be in good shape. When it comes to alcohol and tobacco, I would recommend you need at least a week, depending on your physical fitness.

      When it comes to medication, there are a lot of different drugs, so the length of time away from each drug is going to vary. If you absolutely need to take a medication for health reasons, then stay on it. It is essential to be mindful of your body’s needs and be responsive to it. I hope this helps you.

      Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  4. Hey Alex,
    That’s a fantastic article! Very thorough explanation, I must admit.
    I have immediately sent it to my friend as she climbs all possible mountains and is always looking for others to join. I bet they would benefit from your article if they didn’t know about this before.
    Take care!

    1. It is good to hear you enjoyed this article Harry. I am glad to know you sent it your friend. That is quite the compliment. Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  5. I think it a good article for people who climb mountains and hike. You are expert in this field thanks for sharing the information with world.

  6. I grew up in Colorado and we hiked and camped a lot growing up. So I know all about altitude sickness. Now my issue is with my ears. The altitude causes me lots of trouble with them. I end up getting vertigo. Any solutions for this?

    1. Colorado is a fantastic state for the outdoors. Since it is at such altitude, Colorado can cause altitude sickness for a lot of people.

      When it comes to your ears, you are experiencing a pressure difference on the two sides of your eardrum and you need to equalize the pressure. The most immediate solution is to yawn and swallow (chew a stick a gum). Both of these open up air flow into or out of the middle ear. I hope this helps you.

      Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  7. Great post Alex. I didn’t realize there were so many types of altitude sickness.

    I heard that Dave Asprey from Bulletproof radio got really back Altitude sickness and a local where he was traveling gave him tea with Yak butter. Apparently the high fat content helped with the symptoms.
    Have you heard of this before?

    1. It is good to hear you enjoyed this article. There are indeed a lot of forms of altitude sickness.

      I appreciate the question about yak butter. Tea with yak butter contains tea leaves, water, yak butter and a little salt, making it a high calorie drink, so it helps to maintain your energy levels to fight off altitude sickness. The butter also helps to moisturize your lips. If you drink this tea, you will be better able to ward off altitude sickness.

      Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  8. Hi Alex, this is very interesting article, I learned a lot!
    My city is already at 2600m and is surrounded by mountains, one of them very popular, Monserrate, that is even higher, so usually when people come from outside and try to climb it they get very dizzy, it must probably be this altitude sickness. I’ll keep tips you mention for next time.

    1. I am glad to know you liked this article.

      2600 m is quite high up, no wonder visitors experience altitude sickness when attempting to summit Monserrate. I hope the tips listed here do end up helping you and others.

      Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

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