Altitude sickness - symptoms, treatment and prevention


Table of Contents

Altitude sickness or Altitude mountain sickness is a common problem for people traveling from lower to higher altitudes. The leading cause behind the sickness is the simultaneous decrease in oxygen level and low air pressure as the altitude increases. 



Our body is accustomed to intake a specific amount of oxygen to produce energy, and as per the phenomenon of – “more the altitude, less the oxygen” without proper acclimatization (time taken by the body to adjust to a low oxygen level and air pressure), our body struggles to maintain proper body functions, as now it just has half of the oxygen than it had before. 



In regions at the altitude of 4,000m and above the chances of altitude sickness are relatively high. You can diagnose, treat and prevent AMS easily if it is at a mild level, but if it reaches severity, one might have to admit to a hospital. It is important to note that Acute mountain sickness is the mildest form of altitude sickness.

What are the Symptoms of Altitude Mountain Sickness?

Commonly the symptoms of AMS start to appear at the altitude of 4000m ( it might appear at lower altitudes also, depending on person to person). The person with mild mountain sickness will have –  

  • Headaches 
  • Nausea and Swelling of face, hands, and feet.
  • Pin and needle sensation in hands and feet.
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Problem in sleeping 
    Short of breath and dizziness
  • Vomiting and lack of energy 
 In case the sickness is not treated or paid attention to, it will become severe and hard to treat with a personal diagnosis. The person with severe altitude sickness will face-
  • Severe fatigue (will not be able to walk without help) 
  • Shortness of breath even while resting 
  • Severe headaches and confusion 
  • Possible hallucinations  
  • Fever and persistent cough
    If the sickness is at a severe level, do not try to treat it by yourself and go see the doctor as soon as possible.

How can you prevent Altitude Sickness?

One can prevent altitude sickness by taking the following precautions – 

  • Keep yourself hydrated
  • Do not skip meals and eat nutritious food
  • Get proper acclimatization by taking a night stay at a lower altitude before going to the higher altitude.
  • Take adequate intervals for rest while traveling.
  • Take proper sleep
  • Try not to indulge in intoxicants and smoking
  • Take medications for headache or fever if the symptoms appear
  • Carry an oximeter to check the oxygen level in your blood

    These are some basic tips, which will help to keep away from Altitude sickness, but if it still happens then there is nothing to worry about as your body will adjust to the new oxygen level in 2-3 days and you will be back to normal. 


Three stages of Altitude Sickness 


Altitude sickness can be diagnosed at three different stages – Mild, moderate, and severe. Usually, it begins with mild symptoms and may progress to a severe stage if it is not treated in time, the risk of altitude sickness is high in children below the age of 5 and adults at the age of 60 and above.


The three stages of the sickness are – 


Mild stage or AMS: This is common and can be treated with personal aid. The symptoms involve – headache and nausea, dizziness, and lack of energy, shortness of breath while walking. At this level, the sickness will be healed in 2 to 3 days. 


Moderate stage: At this stage, the sickness starts to interfere with your daily activities, as the fatigue increases. The symptoms will be the same as in the Mild stage but might get worse as the body becomes weak. See a doctor and rest, you might have to descend from the high altitude to the lower area.


Sever stage: This is the stage where sickness can prove to be fatal for the person. The subject will be so drained of energy that he won’t be able to walk without help. Shortness of breath will prevail even while resting and he might start to hallucinate. At this stage, the person can have HAPE (excess fluids in the lungs) or HACE (excess fluids in the brain). This can be only treated by professional medical help so take the person to a nearby hospital as soon as possible.



How to treat Altitude sickness? 

 If you are dealing with the sickness at a mild level, you can follow the given steps –


  • Take a day off and rest, sometimes all you need is a good sleep
  • Consult with a doctor and take medicines prescribed by him.
  • Intake lots of fluids
  • Keep yourself warm
  • Take proper meals, even if you have no appetite for them.
  • Use an oxygen cylinder to breathe if needed
  • Descend to a lower altitude if needed. 

At what altitude does the Altitude sickness start?

Acute altitude sickness starts at the elevation of 4000m above sea level. At least 20% of people traveling to higher altitudes experience altitude sickness, of course, the symptoms and severity of the sickness vary from person to person.

Fast questions and answers (FAQ) 


1. Who is at a higher risk of getting altitude sickness?

  • Children at the age of 5 and below.
  • Adults at the age of 60 and above.
  • Pregnant women.
  • People will lung and breathing problems.
  • Patients of heart disease.


2. What medicines should we take to heal from altitude sickness?
Do not take any medicine without the consultation of a doctor. We will advise you to consult with a local doctor as they are more accustomed to dealing with altitude sickness and will give the right diagnosis.