Altitude sickness occurs when you cannot get enough oxygen from the air at high
altitudes. This causes symptoms such as a headache, loss of appetite, and trouble sleeping.
It happens most often when people who are not used to high altitudes go quickly
from lower altitudes to
8000 ft (2438 m) or higher. For
example, you may get a headache when you drive over a high mountain pass, hike
to a high altitude, or arrive at a mountain resort.
sickness is common. Experts do not know who
will get it and who will not. Neither your fitness level nor being male or female plays a role in whether you get altitude sickness.
sickness can be dangerous. It is smart to take special care if you go
high-altitude hiking or camping (like in the Rockies) or have plans for a
vacation or trek in high-altitude countries like Peru, Ecuador, or
Altitude sickness is also called acute mountain
Air is "thinner" at
high altitudes. When you go too high too fast, your body cannot get as much
oxygen as it needs. So you need to breathe faster. This causes the headache and other symptoms of altitude
sickness. As your body gets used to the altitude, the symptoms go away.
The symptoms of altitude
Your symptoms may be mild to severe. They may not start
until a day after you have been at a high altitude. Many people say altitude
sickness feels like having a hangover.
Altitude sickness can
affect your lungs and brain. When this happens, symptoms include being
confused, not being able to walk straight (ataxia),
feeling faint, and having blue or gray lips or fingernails. When you breathe,
you may hear a sound like a paper bag being crumpled. These symptoms mean the
condition is severe. It may be deadly.
If you are going on a
high-altitude trek, learn about altitude sickness, its symptoms, and
how to treat it. Look out for other people in your group. You can learn more about altitude
sickness at the International Society for Mountain Medicine website at
If you are at
a high altitude, your doctor may think you have this condition. Your doctor
will ask you questions about your symptoms and examine you. To rule out other
conditions, your doctor may ask if you have been drinking fluids or alcohol or
using any medicines, or if you have a cold or the flu.
If you are
hiking or camping, you and those with you need to know the symptoms of altitude
sickness. People often mistake altitude sickness for the flu, a hangover, or dehydration. As a rule, consider your symptoms to
be altitude sickness unless you can prove they are not.
The best treatment for
altitude sickness is to go to a lower altitude. But if you have mild symptoms,
you may be able to stay at that altitude and let your body get used to it.
Symptoms often occur if you have just arrived at a mountain resort from a lower
You may also be able to use oxygen or a specially
designed pressure chamber to treat altitude sickness.
If you stay
at a high altitude, rest. You can explore the area, but take it easy. Limit any
walking or activity. Drink plenty of water, but do not drink alcohol. Do not go
to a higher altitude until your symptoms go away. This may take from 12 hours
to 3 or 4 days.
For the headache,
you can take an over-the-counter medicine, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve). Do not give aspirin to anyone
younger than 20. Aspirin has been linked to
Reye syndrome, a serious illness. You may also use
medicine to reduce feeling sick to your stomach or other symptoms.
can give you acetazolamide (Diamox). This speeds up how fast your body gets
used to the higher altitude. Nifedipine (Procardia) and dexamethasone are
also used for altitude sickness. You may also be able to use oxygen or a
specially designed pressure chamber to treat altitude sickness.
Go to a lower altitude if your symptoms are moderate to severe, they get
worse, or medicine or oxygen treatment does not help. Go down at least
1500 ft (457 m). Go to a lower
altitude as fast as you can or get emergency help if someone with you has
severe symptoms such as being confused or not being able to walk straight. Go
with the person. Never let someone with severe altitude sickness go down
You may be able
to prevent altitude sickness by taking your time when you go to high altitudes,
using medicine in advance, and eating certain foods.
Experts do not know much about how altitude affects other diseases. Many
allergic asthma do better at high altitudes. Still, if
you have asthma and are going to high altitudes, continue to use your daily controller
medicine and take your quick-relief medicine with you. Talk with your doctor about
altitude sickness if you have long-term diseases, especially heart problems,
sickle cell anemia,
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or
The website FamilyDoctor.org is sponsored by the American Academy of Family Physicians. It offers information on adult and child health conditions and healthy living. There are topics on medicines, doctor visits, physical and mental health issues, parenting, and more.
The International Society for Mountain Medicine encourages research
on all aspects of mountains, mountain peoples, and mountaineers. The website
has information and resources about altitude sickness.
The International Society of Travel Medicine (ISTM)
provides education, service, and research in the field of travel medicine. ISTM
focuses on preventive and curative medicine, infectious diseases, high altitude
physiology, and travel-related obstetrics. Two other areas of focus are
military medicine and migration medicine. ISTM's goals are to promote travel
health, develop guidelines for travel medicine, and educate health
professionals and people who work in the travel industry. ISTM's website has a
travel clinic directory where travelers can search for a travel clinic near
Lipman GS, et al. (2012). Ibuprofen prevents altitude illness: A randomized controlled trial for prevention of altitude illness with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories. Annals of Emergency Medicine, 59(6): 484–490.
Murdoch D (2010). Altitude sickness, search date October 2009. Online version of BMJ Clinical Evidence: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.
Other Works Consulted
Hackett PH, Roach RC (2012). High-altitude medicine and physiology. In PS Auerbach, ed., Wilderness Medicine, 6th ed., pp. 2–33. Philadelphia: Mosby Elsevier.
Luks AM, et al. (2010). In R Mason et al., eds., Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine, 5th ed., vol. 2, pp. 1651–1673. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
Luks AM, et al. (2010). Wilderness Medical Society consensus guidelines for the prevention and treatment of acute altitude sickness. Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, 21(2): 146–155.
October 4, 2012
Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
& W. David Colby IV, MSc, MD, FRCPC - Infectious Disease
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