Altitude sickness, also called acute mountain sickness, occurs when the body fails get enough oxygen from the air at high altitudes. It is most common among individuals such as mountaineers and skiers. Altitude sickness causes symptoms such as headache, loss of appetite, and trouble sleeping. The first symptoms usually occur around 3,500 meters, but there may be cases in which they occur at lower elevations (2,000-2,500).  Air gets thinner at high altitudes which is why the body is unable to obtain enough oxygen. In such instances, an individual begins to breathe faster, triggering symptoms of mountain sickness such as headaches. As the body gets used to the altitude, the symptoms tend to go away.

Speed of ascent also plays a key role in mountain sickness. The body needs time to adjust to reaching high heights, which is why climbing should be made slow and gradual. Altitude sickness can be triggered by a number of risk factors: altitudespeedphysical activity at a high altitudeindividual susceptibility. Known risk factors for developing acute altitude sickness include: individuals with a prior history of altitude sickness, individuals under the age of 50, rapid ascent to high altitude and residence at an altitude less than 3000 feet. Severe altitude sickness is considered a medical emergency and should be treated right away in order to prevent further complications from occurring.

What are the symptoms associated with altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness is associated with symptoms such as:

  • Throbbing headache (most common)
  • Tiredness
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lightheadedness
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea and vomiting

In more severe cases, an individual will not have the energy to eat, dress or do anything and their breathing is characterized as superficial and frantic. Symptoms of severe altitude sickness can include: difficulty walkingconfusiondifficulty breathing, bubbling sound in the chestcoughing up a pink fluid, and possible loss of consciousness.

Although rare, in some cases altitude sickness can also affect the lungs and brain. Immediate medical attention is vital in order to prevent further complications, such as pulmonary or cerebral edema, from occurring. These complications can be fatal.  

What to do

In the case of mild symptoms of altitude sickness, going to a lower elevation is highly advised (usually a few hundred meters can be sufficient).  Also, consulting with a doctor is suggested. If this is proves impossible due to the situation at hand, descending to a lower elevation or calling for help promptly is vital. In cases of severe altitude sickness, it is recommended to seek immediate medical attention.

What not to do

A few preventative measures on what not to do in cases regarding altitude sickness include the following:

  • Do not overexert yourself and continue to a higher altitude if symptoms start to present themselves
  • Do not forget to drink plenty of fluids (staying properly hydrated is extremely important)
  • Do not smoke, drink or take any drugs while climbing high altitudes
  • Do not sleep at an altitude that is higher than the one you were climbing during the day (climb high, sleep low)


Disclaimer: The information in this article does not in any way replace the intervention or signs associated with this type of emergency, but rather only provides simple tips as how to keep the situation under control while waiting for a medical rescue team to arrive.