23rd October 2022

High Altitude Sickness

Traveling to higher elevations is not as easy if it’s their first time. At higher altitudes, people might suffer from an illness or problems related to breathing and headache. Such problems mainly occur when a person travels above 6,900 feet elevations quickly. Above 6,900 ft, the oxygen level in the blood starts to decrease. So, the person must acclimatize to adapt to such an environment. Altitude sickness, also known as Acute mountain sickness, altitude illness, hypobaropathy, and Acosta disease, is a term used for a condition when a person has difficulty breathing due to low atmospheric pressure and oxygen level when voyaging to a higher region without giving any rest to the body to adapt. 

Mountain climbers are mainly at high risk of getting altitude sickness. Mountains like Mount Everest (8848 m) and others above 8,000 m are life-threatening as the air pressure, and oxygen level are relatively low at higher altitudes. So, climbers have a maximum risk of mountain sickness if they do not take extra days to acclimatize. Sudden air pressure and oxygen changes affect blood vessels, lungs, heart, and body fluids. If ignored, it may even kill a person.  

Stages of mountain sickness

There are three stages of mountain sickness:

Acute mountain sickness

It is the first and the simplest stage of altitude sickness. Its symptoms are headache, muscle tiredness and pain, and vomiting. It is further divided into three phases which are;

Mild Level: Victims would face light headaches and tiredness, which usually goes off after taking some rest.

Moderate Level: The altitude sickness symptoms will start to hamper one’s activities. People experience intense headaches with vomiting and difficulties on breathing. So, descending to lower regions would minimize the risks.

Critical Level: On this level, the symptoms start getting worse. Victims face problems with breathing, vomiting, and severe headache even while resting. So, descend to lower regions immediately and seek medical help as soon as possible. 

There are two other rare severe cases of extreme altitude sickness which are life-threatening. They are:

High Altitude Pulmonary Edema

The second stage is HAPE which is life-threatening in which the fluids fill the lungs and is one of the primary reasons for death from altitude illness. 

High Altitude Cerebral Edema

The most critical form of mountain sickness is HACE, in which the fluids develop into the brain, which can even cause death. Therefore, taking immediate medical help would save up. 


Depending on the stages of mountain sickness, the symptoms vary. 

Mild symptoms 

Light Headache
Shortness of breath
Difficulties to sleep
Loss of appetite

Moderate symptoms

Difficulties in walking and coordination
Vomiting and serious headache
Extreme weakness and shortness of breath
Heaviness on chest

Critical symptoms

HAPE symptoms

Breathing problems even at rest. 
Extreme weakness and tiredness
Cyanosis on body and lips. 
Stress on chest
Continuous coughing with a release of watery fluids. 
Shortness of breathing

HACE symptoms

Difficulties in coordination
Extreme fatigue
Memory loss
Problems in thinking and remembering
In rare cases, people might go into a coma


The best way one can prevent getting altitude sickness is through acclimatization. Letting your body adapt to lower atmospheric pressure and oxygen level regions minimizes the risks of mountain sickness. For example, while traveling to a higher elevation, take steps gradually, letting the lungs inhale more oxygen so red blood cells can transfer it to various body parts. 

Tips for acclimatization

If you are going to fly or drive to higher elevations, make sure you stop at some lower altitude destinations overnight before heading to the final destination. 
If you are going for a hike or walk or climbing to high elevated regions like the Himalayas, make sure you travel 1000 ft daily. Take a day’s rest for every 3,000 ft distance. 
While climbing risky high mountains, always sleep in lower regions after a high climb. 
At least drink 1 gallon of water daily and take a high-calorie diet, mainly carbohydrates, to feel energized. 
Never perform vigorous exercises. 
Avoid alcoholic drinks, sleeping pills, cigarettes, and tobacco. 
To prevent mountain sickness, one can take medicines like Acetazolamide and dexamethasone. 


If you are experiencing the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness, the below steps must follow to reduce risks.

Stop walking or climbing and take some rest. 
If you experience moderate symptoms, then acclimatize for 1 to 2 days. 
Take some medicines if you have a headache or other illnesses.
Drink sufficient water and energy-giving snacks.
If symptoms don’t go even after a day, then descend to a lower elevation to take a rest. 
Start climbing or walking only after all these symptoms disappear. 
Take immediate medical help if symptoms start getting worse. 
If you feel uneasy and sick while traveling to higher elevations taking Acetazolamide can somehow minimize the risks of mountain sickness. 
If the victim is having breath shortness, then bottled oxygen might help. 
For HACE, one can take dexamethasone, which decreases inflammation in the brain. 
One must need an oxygen cylinder, medicines, and a respirator to treat HAPE. 


Some of the prescribed medicines to treat altitude sickness symptoms are 

Painkillers like acetaminophen for headaches and ibuprofen for fever and body pain.
Acetazolamide is used to treat symptoms of acute mountain sickness such as stomach problems, breath shortness, headache, fever, tiredness, and dizziness. 
Dexamethasone is mainly used to prevent and treat HACE and HAPE. 
Nifedipine is a calcium channel-blocking medicine that treats high blood pressure and decreases chest tightening and pain by relaxing the blood vessels.  


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