Altitude Sickness – How to tackle it?

altitude sickness

Altitude Sickness is a very common to travelers, trekkers when they are traveling to higher elevation and their body failed to acclimate according to it. Also know as “mountain sickness” which will strike you if you are climbing to higher elevation in very quick rate not giving your body proper time to adjust through it.

There is a misconception about the Altitude Sickness , that it impact to only to kids or old age people. However, the fact is your age, sex, physical fitness does not play role in affecting you from altitude sickness. Moreover, just because you do not suffer from Altitude sickness before does not mean you are safe from other high altitude trips.

How does Altitude Sickness happen?

Earth is surrounded with blanket of air layer, which exerts pressure know as barometric pressure.
The higher we go lower the pressure gets and the amount of oxygen also gets decreased. It is not a big problem for those who are living in higher altitude but if you are live in lower altitude then your body takes time to get adjust with new change in pressure.

There is no exact reading of elevation from which the altitude sickness starts. It differ from person to person. But generally normal people are prone to the sickness when they go above 8000 feet in height. 

Types of Altitude Sickness

Broadly, it is of three types

  1. Acute Mountain Sickness ( AMS )

    Most common form. The symptoms generally starts with hangover, headache, fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite and some people might go through occasional vomiting too. It generally takes 24 – 72 hrs to gets acclimatize and get rid of these symptoms.
  1. High Altitude Cerebral Edema ( HACE )

    When AMS progresses, then fluid could build-up on the brain and can turn into HACE.
    The symptoms are headache, disorientation, blurry vision. HACE is rare but it should not be taken lightly. It can become life-threatening within a few hours of first symptoms. Therefore, descending towards lower elevation is the only effective option.
  2. High Altitude Pulmonary Edema ( HAPE )

    When AMS progresses, then fluid could build up on the lungs. HAPE is very common and could happen to anyone who is over 8000 feet. Mild symptoms could be dry cough and shortness of breath after mild physical activities. Severe HAPE symptoms will be fever, confusion/disorientation, and shortness of breath. It is also life-threatening and you should seek the medication right away. Descending to a lower elevation is an effective way to get with HAPE.

Common Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Fatigue and loss of energy

If the sickness persist even after the medicative step, then patient may have:

  • Loss of coordination while walking
  • Feel of tightening in your chest

When the sickness turns into HAPE or HACE then, patient may shows following symptoms:

  • Confusion / Disorientation
  • Shortness of breath even at rest
  • Inability to walk
  • A cough that produce a white or pinky frothy substance.

Medication / Treatment

If you get any of the symptoms mentioned above, then you should be extra cautious and follow these guidelines

After you get symptoms of Altitude sickness, stop and rest wherever you are. Do not go towards further high elevation until your body gets acclimatize which generally takes 24-48 hrs normally.

If you are having headache then taking paracetamol or ibuprofen would be a good option.

Make sure you keep your body hydrated with enough amount of water. Restrain yourself from smoking, drinking alcoholic beverages, or exercise.

If you are feeling sick then you can take an anti-sickness medicine such as promethazine

However, if your symptoms persist even after the medication then you should go down towards lower elevation by at least 500m. Do not attempt to climb upwards until and unless your body is feeling better and symptoms are completely disappeared.

If the condition gets worse then contact to the medical personnel.


Altitude Sickness can leave a bitter experience to your vacation trips, trek or hiking. However there are several ways which helps in preventing the sickness.

Before you go:

  • Keep your body hydrate

Drink water up to two or three liters per day. A hydrated body increase the ability to cope with      the altitude sickness.

  • Take medicine

Tablets like ibuprofen has been found to reduce the incidence of sickness. Another would be Acetazolamide, which will also help in prevention by increasing the respiration process. So, you can have those medicines under necessary condition. Carrying these tablets inside your backpack would be good idea.

  • Caffein-ate and snacks

If you are a regular coffee drinker, then having coffee prior to climbing would be a good start. You can also bring snacks or chocolates. But try to avoid spicy food as it could bring the adverse effect while you catch the symptoms so stick with normal flavor.

  • Stay where you are

If you are not feeling well, then postponing the climb to higher altitude would be a mature choice. What seems to be benign may be serious issue once you get into the higher elevation. Therefore, no risk should be taken.

During the trek:

  • Acclimatize

Your body needs to get fit into those high elevation and it does take time. Do not rush in achieving height neither by foot nor by flight. Though the capacity to withstand the altitude differ from person to person, not climbing more than 1600 feet per day would be a rational decision.

  • Be hydrated

Do not forget to keep your body hydrate. As mention earlier, hydrated body has more ability to withstand the sickness. Drink 2 – 3 litters of water per day.

  • Climb high and sleep low

In order to ease out the process of acclimatization, you can climb to the high altitudes during the day and return to the lower altitude to sleep. You should never sleep on the same altitude if your body is showing the symptoms of altitude sickness.

  • Proper Clothing

Proper clothing is necessary to protect you from cold or heat. You should always carry a pair of good sunglasses, lip balm, sun blocking cream, gloves and other necessary items.

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