Have you ever traveled to a mountainous area, went for skiing, mountain climbing or hiking and felt sick? No, the mountains are not haunted, it’s the altitude sickness which is also called mountain sickness. Altitude illness is experienced when the air pressure and oxygen level drops into the surrounding air.
You must be thinking that if mountain high altitude pressures are causing the sickness, then how about people living in the mountains?
Well, people living on higher levels in the mountains comfortably live as their body is used to the air pressure. Travelers, Climbers, and skiers are at more risk to experience altitude illness as their body needs time to adjust to the surrounding air pressure. Furthermore, ascending to a higher level of 8000 ft above the sea level rapidly without allowing your body to rest is also a significant cause to endure mountain sickness.
Altitude sickness is a personal thing which varies from person to person. Some people start feeling sick at lower altitudes around 2300 m, while others do not even get high elevation sickness at around 8000 ft. Your chance of getting an altitude sickness depends on how quickly you ascend to higher altitudes, how high you elevate and in what elevations you sleep. However, there are different levels of altitude sickness, starting from least dangerous Acute mountain illnesses to the most intimidating high-altitude illnesses such as high-altitude sickness pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE).
What are Altitude Sickness Symptoms and Types?
|High altitude sicknesses||Time after ascent||Location||Symptoms|
|AMS (Acute mountain sickness)||1-2 days||>8,000 ft||headache & Nausea|
|HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema)||3-4 days||>10,000 ft||Cough & Shortness of breath|
|HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema)||4-7 days||>12,000 ft||Confusion & Hallucination|
1. Acute Mountain Sickness
Causes of high altitude sickness
When you reach a higher altitude too fast, the oxygen level drops and make it difficult to breathe. Lack of oxygen in the air and thus in blood also causes fast breathing and result in altitude sickness symptoms such as:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Heavy head (dizziness)
- Blocked ears
- A headache
- Lack of appetite
- A sleeping problem (insomnia)
- Rapid heartbeat
These symptoms usually start happening within an hour or between 6 to 12 hours of ascending into higher altitudes and last for few days.
2. High Altitude Pulmonary Edema
Apart from the shortage of oxygen level as the initial reason for altitude illness, pulmonary hypertension is one of the other contributing factors. Pulmonary hypertension refers to higher blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs. A low oxygen concentration in the blood causes the blood vessels in the lungs to tighten and go under pressure which causes chest tightness, fluid leakage into the lungs, and noise while breathing.
- a dry cough
- nose bleeding
- shortness of breath
- higher temperatures (fever)
- chest tightness
- Rapid heart rates (Palpitations)
3. High Altitude Cerebral Edema
- Loss of consciousness
- Severe headaches where people cannot sit up
- Fever and fatigue
- Shortness of breath
- Inability to walk
Some of the Risk Factors Include
Some people may be at more risk to experience altitude sickness than others, and some of the risk factors include:
- Drinking alcohol
- Traveling with medical conditions such as asthma
- Climbing rapidly before the body adjusts to the altitude
- Climbing at an 8000 ft from sea level without resting
- Previous high-altitude illnesses
- Low fluid in the body
- Physical exertion
High Altitude Sickness Prevention
High altitude sickness prevention- anyone can develop high altitude sickness, and being physically fit or eating healthy does not help to prevent it. However, one of the best ways to diminish the impact of high elevation illness is to allow your body to get used to the changing altitudes as you are traveling into higher altitudes. Lack of oxygen in the red blood cells is the reason for getting mountain sickness. Therefore, one should climb the mountains or travel slowly so the body can get enough oxygen. If you climb over 1000 ft a day, then sleep at a lower altitude, and for every 3000 ft, you climb to make sure to at least rest for a day at that height before climbing higher.
In order to prevent the high-altitude illness, one can take the following measures:
- No consumption of alcohol
- No smoking
- Drinking plenty of water
- Ascend slowly
- Take rest
- Avoid exercising
- Eat digestible food
Altitude Sickness Medication
One should consult a doctor or take the required over the counter medication to treat mountain sickness. To manage the condition, doctors prescribe medication as per each symptom respectively.
To treat the mountain sickness, over the counter medications are available such as ibuprofen, aspirin, and Tylenol. According to Dr. Grant Lipan, a professor of emergency medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine,”Ibuprofen can prevent 26% of cases of altitude sickness.”. However, a much safer drug called ‘Acetaminophen’ is conferred to provide instant relief at higher elevations. Consult your doctor before using this medicine and to read more about it here
Zofran is a tablet for high altitude sickness which is prescribed for nausea and vomiting, and people usually take sleeping pills to deal with insomnia.
One of the standards clinically proven drugs is nifedipine and dexamethasone dose for high altitude sickness treatment. Which helps to lower the blood pressure and treat the more advanced mountain sickness called cerebral edema.
NOTE: All the medicines mentioned above are prescribed by doctors and have their side effects. Please consult a doctor before consumption.
Living at Higher Altitudes:
Living at higher elevations has an impact on one’s health. A study Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health has shown that people living in Colorado and Utah mountain states have lower obesity rates due to reduced appetite. Because of lower oxygen level, studies have suggested that high altitudes improve cardiovascular health. Some researchers concluded that women living at higher elevations have a lower risk of heart attacks. However, on the other hand, diminished oxygen level also leads to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). People living at higher elevations do not experience mountain sickness as their body is adjusted to their surrounding air pressure and oxygen level.
The following are some of the most famous cities with highest altitudes:
- El Alto, Bolivia – over one million people live 13,615 feet above the sea level
- Mount Everest (Himalayan mountain range)- Border of Nepal is almost 29,035 feet tall
- K2 Height: Peak elevation from sea level 28’251 ft. (8611 m.)
- Alma, Colorado- with a population of only 275 residents is 10,353 feet above the sea level
High Altitude Statistics
|Mountain||Height ft||Height m||Summits||Deaths||Death/Summits %|
Q1. Why is it hard to breathe at high altitudes?
Q2. Can high altitude cause sleep apnea?
Q3. Does high altitude affect blood pressure?
Q4. How do you deal with altitude sickness?
Q5. How long do the effects of altitude sickness last?
Q6. What drugs do you take for altitude sickness?
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- Maggiorini, M; Brunner-La Rocca, HP; Peth S; et al. (October 2006). “Both tadalafil and dexamethasone may reduce the incidence of high-altitude pulmonary edema: a randomized trial”. Annals of Internal Medicine. 145 (7): 497–506. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-145-7-200610030-00007. PMID 17015867.