Altitude Sickness and Prevention

Altitude sickness is a self-explanatory term. Altitude sickness is caused by rapidly climbing to a high altitude without providing enough time to adjust oxygen levels and acclimate to the surrounding atmosphere. This condition or sickness is more common at an altitude of more than 2500 meters. The cause of this sickness is the shortage of oxygen. The general public should be aware that this is a severe issue having the potential to damage and cause tragic consequences if not addressed. Mountain sickness is another term for this illness.


There are mainly three forms of altitude sickness, or it covers three chief syndromes.

Acute mountain sickness (AMS)

This is the most prevalent kind of altitude sickness, and it is the mildest. It often affects climbers, skiers, and travelers over 2500 m. The symptoms develop within hours after climbing or rising to higher elevations and vary in severity according to the severity of the sickness and the symptoms developed. Dizziness, headaches, muscular pains, irrational behavior, rapid heartbeat, and lack of appetite are all signs of AMS. In the worst-case situation, it may progress to HAPE in certain individuals.

High-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE)

High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) is a fatal form of high-altitude illness. HAPE is a kind of pulmonary edema that develops as hypoxia rather than a cardiac problem. When moving at high altitudes, one may experience increased breathlessness, which progresses to dyspnea at rest, a dry cough, chest tightness or congestion, a rapid heartbeat, general weakness, and blue or purple skin tissue color. Dyspnea, breathing problems, and even death are possible side effects.

High-altitude cerebral edema (HACE)

High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) is a severe and potentially lethal form of high altitude disease characterized by ataxia, tiredness, and a disturbing psychological condition. HACE is the intense form or end-stage of acute mountain sickness (AMS). Although HACE is the least prevalent kind of altitude sickness, if not diagnosed and treated, it may quickly progress to a coma and death because of brain rupture within 24 hours.


  • Lack of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weakness, dizziness, and insomnia
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling of hands, feet, and different parts of the body
  • Heart palpitations Blue-tinged skin and nails
  • Unable to sit up or walk in a straight line.
  • Frequent coughing


Traveling to higher altitudes develops symptoms of altitude sickness due to rapid changes in air pressure and oxygen levels. Symptoms emerge when the body is unable to adjust to low oxygen levels. Even in good condition, altitude sickness may occur at any moment. High altitude and low air pressure may induce blood vessel leakage. It's unclear why this is happening. After the leak, fluid builds up in your lungs and brain, causing infection. Ignoring moderate-to-severe symptoms might lead to death.


Altitude sickness often causes headaches. Dehydration can also cause similar symptoms. A doctor will thus consider several criteria before making a clinical diagnosis. One is diagnosed with altitude sickness when a person suffers from headache and other symptoms after climbing beyond 8000 feet. Symptoms include dizziness, sleeplessness, and shortness of breath. If these symptoms appear, the climber should stop immediately and rest. They may also recover from descending to a lower altitude.


Treatment depends upon how severe and what form the symptoms take.


Stopping ascending and resting at the same altitude is the most significant treatment for moderate AMS, since symptoms may recover in 24 to 48 hours with no extra treatments if one can adjust to the conditions. When it comes to treating a headache, medications such as ibuprofen and paracetamol might be helpful.


The most critical step to treating HACE is immediately descending to a lower altitude. It may also be deadly if delayed. There is a possibility that this might save a person's life. One can use oxygen and steroid medications to relieve symptoms and make treatment more comfortable. One can use a portable hyperbaric chamber to treat patients suffering from HACE.


People suffering from HAPE should descend to a lower altitude as quickly as possible. Even though a few hundred meters of the drop might have a significant effect, one must take the optimal descent when symptoms begin to decrease. Although oxygen treatment and the medicine (nifedipine) may be effective in relieving symptoms, they are not a replacement for descending to a lower altitude.


The best way to prevent altitude sickness is to ascend slowly. One can get enough rest and become acclimatized for further trekking. The other ways to prevent altitude sickness are:-

  • Drink plenty of water to keep your body hydrated.
  • Stay away from smoking and alcoholic drinking.
  • Eat a light yet high-calorie diet for the first 24 hours, and avoid intense activity.
  • Familiarize yourself with the early warning symptoms of altitude sickness and be prepared to accept treatment if you experience any.
  • When experiencing symptoms of altitude illness, even if they seem minor, avoid ascending to a higher altitude to sleep.
  • If your symptoms intensify while you remain at the same altitude, descend to a lower level.