What is altitude sickness?

Causes, symptoms and treatment

Altitude or high altitude sickness occurs when someone climbs a mountain really quick into a different pressure. The drop in atmospheric pressure prevents you from taking in adequate oxygen and leads to difficult and hard breathing. Most instances of high altitude sickness are not serious and just cause a headache, dizziness and some nausea. In some cases there is a possibility of fluid build-up in the brain or the lungs which can be extremely dangerous.


It’s not known exactly what causes some people to experience altitude sickness. Yes, we know that going someplace high triggers it, but it’s impossible to say who will be affected by it. Gender, age, physical well-being and other factors related to many illnesses and conditions don’t seem to factor into whether or not someone will experience altitude sickness.

We do know what it is about high places that causes this sickness to occur, though. The air is thinner up there, and that means that your body has to work harder to produce enough oxygen for the heart and other vital organs. That excessive strain on your heart can cause all sorts of problems, creating the symptoms commonly associated with altitude sickness.

Your body may adjust to the sickness and the high altitude after a while, and when it does, the symptoms should go away on their own.


The most common symptom associated with this sickness is a headache. It’s a throbbing pain that persists until your body adjusts. It tends to worsen at night or when you are just waking.

You may also experience stomach pain or a loss of appetite. Your body is trying to deal with not having enough oxygen pumping through it, and that can make things uncomfortable for different bodily systems.

Dizziness and tiredness are also common symptoms. You may feel like you just don’t have enough energy for anything, even actions as simple as getting out of bed or eating.

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


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

If your symptoms are mild, then it should be fine to stay at that altitude and just let your body adjust. Your symptoms should go away on their own after a while. If you are having a severe reaction to the altitude, then it’s a good idea to get 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. This drug will help your body to adjust to the altitude faster.

If no medication is available and you can’t leave your current altitude, then you should try an oxygen treatment. Just giving your body more oxygen should be enough to take care of the symptoms and allow your body to return to normal.

For people who are spending a long time in a high altitude location and are having some difficulty coping, the best thing they can do is to take things slowly. Try not to exert yourself or make your body attempt to produce more oxygen. 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 make some preparations. One of the best ways is to spend some time at a medium altitude. This will permit your body to adjust more slowly and naturally and prepare for the higher altitude in a less stressful way.

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