Altitude Sickness: Your Complete Guide

The symptoms, treatments and how you can limit the effects of altitude sickness

If you’re living an adventurous lifestyle, you might find it occasionally catches up to you—and maybe not always in the way you’d expect. The daredevils among us know that broken bones or at least a few scrapes are an inherent possibility, but there are some other side effects of adventurous travels that you might not always think about. Altitude sickness is one of those oddities that’s a little bit mysterious and potentially dangerous.

If you’ve ever skied the Rockies, trekked in Nepal or visited Ecuador you may have already experienced altitude sickness. Characterized by a throbbing headache, queasy stomach, dizziness and feelings of exhaustion, altitude sickness is brought on by traveling to high places too quickly. When the air gets thinner, your body struggles to take in enough air and then you feel sick.

The ailment, also called acute mountain sickness, typically starts to begin affecting many people at around 8,000 feet. It affects each of us in varying degrees, and who it hits worst is still a mystery—neither your age, nor gender, nor fitness level seems to help in predicting whether or not you will experience altitude sickness.

The symptoms range widely in severity and they may take a day or so to take full effect. Some say it feels like a hangover. In rare cases, altitude sickness can become extreme, effecting the brain and lungs, in those cases it can be deadly and it’s imperative that those affected get to a lower altitude and seek medical help.

Mild cases of altitude sickness can be treated by going to a lower altitude, using an oxygen machine or taking an over-the-counter pain reliever (to offset the headache). Though it’s easier and less painful to prevent altitude sickness.

How to Avoid Altitude Sickness
—Try to spend time at an altitude in between your normal altitude and where you plan to go

—Sleep at a lower altitude when possible, for example if you’re skiing a particularly high mountain, find a low altitude place to stay overnight.

—Limit strenuous activity.

—Drink extra water, even before you’re thirsty.

—Eat carbohydrate-rich foods like bread, cereal and pasta.

—Avoid drinking too much alcohol.

—You might want to consider taking acetazolamide (Diamox), as it’s been shown to help with altitude sickness, but consult your doctor beforehand.

More Reading:
How Does Altitude Affect Your Weight?
Altitude Training for the Non-Elite
Everest Hype, High Altitude Danger and Ice Climbing Niagara Falls with Will Gadd