Are you planning an active vacation with skiing, climbing a mountain or just hiking in the heights? Looking forward to enjoying picturesque mountain scenery? There is one more thing that might potentially ruin your holiday – altitude sickness. Also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), this condition occurs when an individual rises to the heights where there is a much lower concentration of oxygen, but also, where air pressure is significantly lower. Even just a small change in the amounts of oxygen in the air, let’s say, at around 2000 meters, is enough to trigger a strong bodily response for some, especially if they’re not used to heights. If you are planning to spend some time in the heights, you should pay special attention to mild symptoms of AMS onset, since altitude sickness can hit very fast and if it catches you in the wrong place, it can even prove to be fatal.

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Why do you get sick at high altitude?

As one raises to a greater altitude the concentration of oxygen and air pressure slowly begin to drop. The body compensates by increasing the pulse, heart’s stroke volume and the ability of the red blood cells to bind oxygen. By doing this, our cardiovascular system helps us getting to greater heights, but at the same time, this process of adaptation causes certain negative side effects, including higher pressure in the lungs and disturbances in the blood PH values. The altitude sickness, as subjectively experienced, is rooted in these negative effects, and its onset can be quite rapid if you continue climbing without adapting to the height and pressure difference. This is one of the reasons why professional mountaineers take many breaks and often stop when they are high up in the mountains.

Altitude sickness symptoms

There are different symptoms which may occur once you start climbing and it’s extremely important to get familiar with them so you can notice them when they first appear and thus avoid getting overwhelmed by AMS once you reach the more dangerous heights. The most common symptoms that occur in the first, milder phase include:

  • Headaches (mild, can be treated with headache tablets)
  • Light dizziness
  • General malaise
  • Mild nausea
  • Difficulty sleeping

These mild symptoms can manifest at altitudes below 3000 meters and you can usually keep them under control by simply resting and waiting for them to diminish and gradually disappear before continuing your climb. However, if you start noticing the symptoms once you pass the 3000 meters benchmark, it is highly advisable to return to the area slightly below 3Km and wait for the symptoms to disappear there.

Severe symptoms

The more severe symptoms, especially those which manifest at heights higher than 3000 meters can be indicative of a more serious disorder and a severe case of acute mountain sickness. If this happens, medical attention is almost certainly necessary. These symptoms include:

  • Strong headache that can’t be treated with medicines
  • Strong nausea and vomiting
  • Dizziness bordering with disorientation and loss of balance
  • Pressure in the chest and difficulties breathing
  • Swelling of the skin around the eyes and on hands and feet
  • Confusion
  • Seizures

If you or your partners experience these symptoms, consult a doctor immediately, call for help and start descending immediately. Acute mountain sickness of this stage can develop into some very serious and potentially lethal complications, even when we disregard the inherent danger of losing balance at the height of 3000 meters. This is why it’s imperative to take mountaineering seriously, especially if you’re planning to reach new heights. Do not go alone in those endeavours and it is highly recommended that you and your climbing partners try to find someone who is experienced in the area you are visiting.

How to prevent altitude sickness?

There are various things that you can do in order to prevent acute mountain sickness. However, neither of these methods is 100% certain and no matter what you do, you cannot be completely sure that you’ll avoid all the symptoms. Some precautions include:

  • Avoid travelling directly to your target destination (via airplane or zip-line)
  • Do not climb more than 300-500 meters per day
  • Take some time to adjust to the height when climbing to altitudes above 3000m
  • Take plenty of breaks
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Avoid alcohol and tobacco
  • Avoid hard physical effort in the first 24 hours of the climb
  • Eat sensibly to ensure enough energy for the climb

Acute mountain sickness treatment

Once AMS symptoms manifest, it is important to treat them instantly in order to prevent further complications or injury in case of loss of balance or consciousness. Some of the things you can do right away are:

Descend to a lower altitude

If you experience only mild symptoms, slowing down and staying at the same altitude until the symptoms disappear might be the best course of action. However, if you notice the symptoms are getting more severe, you should immediately get down to a lower altitude and contact a doctor or an emergency rescue service if you’re alone. Never climb to a greater altitude while symptoms persist!

If the symptoms persist even after descending, contact the doctor immediately.

Treat the symptoms

Sometimes, the symptoms of acute mountain symptoms can be severe enough to make you doubt your ability to descend safely. If that is the case, symptomatic treatment might be your best option, for example, taking anti-headache or anti-nausea medicines in order to reduce those specific symptoms. However, be sure to use the relief gotten that way wisely – rest while waiting for symptoms to disappear and continue descending only then. You can also use symptomatic treatment when climbing, but only if you’re already experienced and know that you won’t experience any more severe symptoms. And, the same applies here – once you take the medicine, wait for it to start working before continuing the climb.

Medication against altitude sickness

If you already know you have problems with altitude sickness, you might be interested in preventive medications that can help with the symptoms. Depending on the exact type and mechanism of action of the medicine, preventive AMS drugs can be used even if you need to climb higher than 3000 meters. For example, Diamox which contains the active substance acetazolamide has proven to be extremely efficient in mitigating the symptoms of altitude sickness, albeit it is a prescription-only drug.