Altitude Sickness

ExitCare ImageAltitude sickness occurs when a person goes to a high altitude (at least 8,200 ft [2,460 m] above sea level) without first letting the body adjust to the higher altitude (acclimate). Symptoms generally develop within 72 hours of arriving at high altitude. It can happen to anyone, regardless of physical condition. Altitude sickness is a medical emergency that can develop into a life-threatening condition.

CAUSES

Altitude sickness is caused by rapidly ascending to higher altitudes that expose you to lower air pressure and lower oxygen levels. Going to high altitudes quickly and exerting yourself can make altitude sickness more likely to occur.

SYMPTOMS

  • Severe headache.

  • Nausea and vomiting.

  • Shortness of breath.

  • Dizziness.

  • Confusion.

  • Uncoordinated movements.

  • Fatigue and sleep disturbances.

  • Weakness.

  • Hallucinations.

DIAGNOSIS

Your caregiver will take your medical history and perform a physical exam. A chest X-ray may also be taken.

TREATMENT

In most cases of mild altitude sickness, your symptoms will resolve gradually over 3 to 5 days. If treatment is needed, it begins with moving to a lower altitude (1,800 ft [540 m] above sea level or lower) as quickly and safely as possible. Oxygen and certain medicines may also be given to help with breathing. In severe cases, you may need to stay in the hospital.

PREVENTION

To prevent altitude sickness during future trips:

  • Go to higher altitudes slowly, giving your body time to acclimate.

  • Go to higher altitudes during the daytime and return to lower altitudes at night.

  • Give your body a few days to adjust to a change in altitude before starting strenuous physical activities.

  • Ask your caregiver about medicines you can take to prevent altitude sickness.

HOME CARE INSTRUCTIONS

  • If you must exercise, do so lightly for the first 24 to 36 hours after treatment.

  • Drink enough fluids to keep your urine clear or pale yellow.

  • Eat small, light meals.

  • Avoid smoking, calming medicines (sedatives), and alcohol.

  • Remain at a low altitude.

  • Have someone stay with you until you feel stable.

  • Keep all follow-up appointments as directed by your caregiver.

SEEK IMMEDIATE MEDICAL CARE IF:

  • You have severe shortness of breath at rest or with exertion.

  • You have chest pain or tightness.

  • You have a fast heartbeat.

  • You have a severe headache.

  • You have a severe cough.

  • You have difficulty walking.

  • You have difficulty concentrating.

  • You feel confused.

MAKE SURE YOU:

  • Understand these instructions.

  • Will watch your condition.

  • Will get help right away if you are not doing well or get worse.