Sometimes called “mountain sickness,” altitude sickness is a group of symptoms that can strike if you walk or climb to a higher elevation, or altitude, too quickly. The pressure of the air that surrounds you is called barometric pressure. When you go to higher altitudes, this pressure drops and there is less oxygen available.
If you live in a place that’s located at a moderately high altitude, you get used to the air pressure. But if you travel to a place at a higher altitude than you’re used to, your body will need time to adjust to the change in pressure.
Any time you go above 9,800ft (3000m), you can be at risk for altitude sickness.
There are three kinds of altitude sickness:
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is the mildest form and it’s very common. The symptoms can feel like a hangover – dizziness, headache, muscle aches, nausea.
High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) is a buildup of fluid in the lungs that can be very dangerous and even life threatening.
High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) is the most severe form of altitude sickness and happens when there’s fluid in the brain. It’s life threatening and you need to seek medical attention right away.
You might have:
Symptoms usually come on within 12 to 24 hours of reaching a higher elevation and then get better within a day or two as your body adjusts to the change in altitude.
If you have a more moderate case of altitude sickness, your symptoms might feel more intense and not improve with over-the-counter medications. Instead of feeling better as time goes on, you’ll start to feel worse. You’ll have more shortness of breath and fatigue. You may also have:
- Loss of coordination and trouble walking
- A severe headache that doesn’t get better with medication
- A tightening in your chest
If you develop a severe form of altitude sickness like HAPE or HACE, you might have:
- Shortness of breath even at rest
- Inability to walk
- A cough that produces a white or pink frothy substance
Who Gets It Altitude Sickness?
Anyone can develop altitude sickness, no matter how fit, young, or healthy they are — even Olympic athletes can get it. In fact, being physically active at a high elevation makes you more likely to get it.
Your chance of getting altitude sickness depends on a few other things: how quickly you move to a higher elevation, how high you go up, the altitude where you sleep, and other factors.
Your risk also depends on where you live and the altitude there, your age (young people are more likely to get it), and whether you’ve had altitude sickness before.
Having certain illnesses like diabetes or lung disease doesn’t automatically make you more likely to develop altitude sickness. But your genes could play a role in your body’s ability to handle higher elevations.
If you get a headache and at least one other symptom associated with altitude sickness within a day or two of changing your elevation, you might have altitude sickness. If your symptoms are more severe, you’ll need medical attention.
Your doctor might listen to your chest with a stethoscope or take an X-ray of your chest or an MRI or CT scan of your brain to look for fluid.
Knowing the symptoms of altitude sickness will help you seek treatment early, while the condition is still mild. The most important treatment for any level of altitude sickness is to go down to a lower elevation as soon as possible while remaining safe.
If you have severe altitude sickness, you’ll need to be taken down to a lower elevation right away — and it must be lower than 4,000 feet. You’ll have to see a doctor as soon as possible and you may need to go to the hospital.
If you have HACE, you might need a steroid called dexamethasone. If you have HAPE, you will need supplemental oxygen and may need medications, as well as moving to a lower altitude.
The best way you can lower your chance of getting altitude sickness is through acclimatization. That means you let your body slowly get used to the changes in air pressure as you travel to higher elevations.
You’ll want to climb to higher altitudes gradually. Going slowly helps your lungs get more air through deeper breaths and allows more of your red blood cells to carry oxygen to different parts of your body.