Altitude sickness: symptoms, causes and treatment

Everything you need to know about altitude sickness


Have you ever felt weak or suffered from a headache during an aeroplane fight? Maybe you felt sick to your stomach and lost your appetite when you climbed to a higher altitude. If you've experienced something along these lines, then you may have experienced altitude sickness. Altitude sickness results in a general feeling of un-wellness, characterised by specific symptoms that only affects certain people when they move to high altitudes.

What Causes Altitude Sickness?

The exact cause behind altitude sickness and why it only affects certain people is unknown. Yes, we know that climbing to higher altitudes triggers it, but it's impossible to know who will be affected by it. Gender, age, physical well-being and other factors related to illnesses and conditions don't seem to factor into whether someone will experience altitude sickness.

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We do know what it is about high altitudes that cause this sickness; however, we do know the air is thinner at higher altitudes. Since the air is thinner, there are lower levels of oxygen in the air. This low oxygen levels increased your breathing and heart rate, meaning your heart has to work harder to pump enough oxygen around the body. That excessive strain on your heart can result in all sorts of problems, creating the symptoms commonly associated with altitude sickness.

Your body may adjust to the sickness and the high altitude after some time due to acclimatisation, and when it does, the symptoms should resolve on their own.

What are the Symptoms of Altitude Sickness?

The most common symptom associated with this sickness is a headache. It’s a throbbing pain in your head that persists for a while. It tends to worsen at night or upon waking.

You may also experience stomach pains or a loss of appetite. Your body is trying to deal with insufficient levels of oxygen, and throw your different bodily systems off balance.

Dizziness and tiredness are other common symptoms of altitude sickness. You may feel drained of energy and actions as simple as getting out of bed or eating.

In very severe cases, your fingernails and lips can change colour, turning blue or grey. Your lungs and brain may also be affected, and you may have difficulty breathing or feel confused.

What is the Treatment for Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness can affect different people in different ways. Not everyone will suffer the same symptoms or experience the same level of sickness. Treatment, however, can be equally successful for anyone.

If your symptoms are mild, then it usually fine to stay at the altitude and just let your body adjust as your symptoms should resolve on its own after a while. If you are experiencing severe symptoms, then it’s a good idea to move to a lower altitude as soon as possible. If you don’t have that option, then a doctor may prescribe medication. Aspirin or Ibuprofen can treat some of the painful symptoms, but others may need to be treated with Acetazolamide. Acetazolamide will help your body to adjust to the altitude faster.

If no medication is available and you can’t leave your location, then you should try oxygen treatment. By providing your body with more oxygen, it should help your symptoms resolve and allow your body to return to normal.

For people who are spending a prolonged time at high altitudes and are having some difficulty coping, the best thing they can do is to take things slowly. Try not to exert yourself. Just pace yourself and slowly work your way up to normal levels of activity until your body gets used to the limitations of high altitude.

If you know that you will be spending an extended amount of time at a high altitude, it’s a good idea to be prepared. One of the best ways is to spend some time at a medium altitude first before climbing higher. Acclimatisation will allow your body to adjust slowly and naturally and prepare for the higher altitude in a less stressful way.

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