Altitude sickness

Altitude sickness


The body is deprived of an adequate amount of oxygen when a person is mountain-climbing, driving, hiking, or performing any other activity at a high altitude.

Depriving the body of this essential gas can cause altitude sickness. This disorder usually occurs when a person ascends to a height of 8,000 feet and above. People who are not used to these heights have the greatest vulnerability. Symptoms associated with this disorder include insomnia and headache. The reader should understand that this disorder is not one to be taken lightly. In fact, it is an extremely dangerous condition. No one can predict when or how it will occur – anyone at a high altitude can get it.

What are the symptoms of altitude sickness?

The symptoms associated with altitude sickness can show up immediately, or it may take some time. Symptoms include:

  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Tachycardia
  • Vomiting
  • Dyspnea (with or without exertion)

Advanced symptoms associated with this disease include:

  • Discoloration of the skin (change to gray, pale or blue)
  • Coughing
  • Confusion
  • Chest tightness
  • Coughing up bloody mucus
  • Decreased consciousness
  • Shortness of breath while at rest
  • The patient is unable to walk in a straight line

Types of altitude sickness

Altitude sickness is categorized into three;

Acute mountain sickness

Abbreviated AMS, acute mountain sickness is the most common form of altitude sickness. It has symptoms that are similar to alcohol intoxication.


The full meaning of HACE is High-altitude cerebral edema. It happens when acute mountain sickness persists. High altitude cerebral edema is an extreme form of acute mountain sickness, characterized by swelling of the brain. Symptoms of high altitude cerebral edema are similar to severe acute mountain sickness. The most obvious symptoms include:

  • Irritability and confusion
  • Extreme drowsiness
  • Difficulty in walking

If high-altitude cerebral edema is not treated immediately, then it can cause death.


HAPE, whose full meaning is High-altitude pulmonary edema is a progression of high-altitude cerebral edema. However, it can also occur on its own. When fluid accumulates in the lungs, breathing becomes a task, thus impairing the function of the lungs. Symptoms associated with HAPE include:

  • Severe coughing
  • Weakness
  • Breathlessness when one engages in tasking physical activity.

If there is any delay in the treatment of HAPE, then it may lead to death.

What are the causes of altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness happens when a person ascends to a high altitude and the body fails to acclimate to that altitude. As the altitude increases, the air gets thinner, while the oxygen concentration decreases drastically. Altitude sickness is very common at elevations greater than 8,000 feet. Studies have shown that at least 20 percent of skiers, adventurers, and hikers traveling to heights between 8000 and 18000 feet have symptoms of altitude sickness. However, at elevations higher than 18,000 the number rises to 50 percent.

What are the risk factors for altitude sickness?

The risk for this disease is low if you have not had any previous episode of the sickness. You are also at low risk if you ascend heights in a gradual pattern. Climbing to a height of 8,200 feet in as many as two days can reduce your risk drastically. The risk for altitude sickness is increased in persons who have this disease. The risk is also high if you ascend rapidly or ascend higher than 1,600 feet daily.

Diagnosis of altitude sickness

Before diagnosing, your physician will engage you in an extensive question and answer session. The aim is to identify the symptoms of altitude sickness. Your heartbeat will also be examined with a stethoscope if you suffer from dyspnea. Cracking or rattling sounds in the lungs is an indication that fluid is present in the lungs. Of course, this must be promptly treated. Your physician may also lookout for signs of lung collapse or fluid via a chest x-ray.

Treatment of altitude sickness

A rapid descent can help relieve early symptoms of this disorder. However, it is imperative that the sufferer seeks immediate medical attention if he or she experiences the advanced symptoms of the disease.

Acetazolamide, a medication, can be used to reduce the symptoms of the disease. It also helps ease breathing. Dexamethasone may also be administered. Other treatments used to relieve altitude sickness include medications for high blood pressure (nifedipine), inhalers, and a phosphodiesterase inhibitor. This will minimize pulmonary arterial pressure. For those who are unable to breathe on their own, a breathing machine may be of help.

The complications of altitude sickness

If this disorder is left untreated, then it may cause complications such as:

  • Swelling of the brain
  • Pulmonary edema
  • Coma
  • Death

Prognosis for altitude sickness

Rapid recovery is possible if mild cases are treated immediately. Advanced cases require intensive medical care. Treatment for advanced cases is a bit more difficult. Advanced patients are at risk of coma or death due to difficulty in breathing and swelling of the brain.

Can altitude sickness be prevented?

Climbers are advised to have adequate knowledge of the symptoms of this disorder before they embark on a climbing adventure. If symptoms worsen while you are at rest, then do yourself a world of good by descending immediately. The risk for this disorder can be minimized by staying properly hydrated. Also, alcohol and caffeine should be avoided, as both can lead to dehydration.

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