Altitude Sickness in Sports

When someone who is not used to being at high altitudes (usually 8000 ft or higher) travels to high altitude, he or she may experience altitude sickness (mountain sickness). Symptoms are often present within 12 to 36 hours of ascent. Altitude sickness occurs in 25% of people traveling to high altitude. It usually goes away 1 to 2 days after staying at the same altitude. At high altitudes, the air contains less oxygen than at lower altitudes. The decrease in oxygen requires your body to work harder, in order to get the oxygen it needs. Anyone may get altitude sickness, despite their level of physical fitness.

RISK INCREASES WITH:

  • Dehydration.

  • Chronic lung diseases (asthma, COPD).

  • Diabetes.

  • Heart disease.

  • Not acclimating to elevation change.

  • Smoking.

  • Alcohol use.

  • Anemia (not enough red blood cells).

SYMPTOMS

  • Flu-like symptoms.

  • Loss of appetite.

  • Difficulty breathing.

  • Trouble sleeping.

  • Headache.

  • Nausea.

  • Confusion.

  • Fatigue.

  • Vomiting.

  • Disorientation.

  • Shortness of breath.

  • Weakness.

  • Trouble seeing clearly.

  • Loss of balance.

  • Coughing up pink-colored phlegm.

PREVENTION

  • Ascend to higher elevations slowly. Allow the body to adjust (acclimate).

  • Wait 2 to 3 days before starting physical activity at high altitudes.

  • Stay hydrated.

  • Avoid drinking alcohol, coffee, or tea.

  • Avoid smoking.

  • Avoid the use of sleeping pills.

  • Avoid medicines that are diuretics (make you urinate frequently). If you have a prescription for such medicine, ask your caregiver before discontinuing the medicine.

  • If you have experienced altitude sickness in the past, your caregiver may be able to prescribe a medicine for you that prevents altitude sickness.

  • If prescribed, take medicine before ascending to high altitude and continue taking the medicine throughout your stay.

RELATED COMPLICATIONS

  • Fluid buildup in the lungs (pulmonary edema).

  • Swelling of the brain (cerebral edema).

  • Death.

TREATMENT

The most definitive treatment for altitude sickness is returning to a lower elevation. Other treatments include giving oxygen for 12 to 24 hours and fluid consumption. You may be prescribed medicines such as acetazolamide (Diamox) by a caregiver. If symptoms go away after returning to a lower altitude, you may try returning to a higher elevation only after your body adjusts, which may take 1 to 3 days. High-altitude edema (pulmonary edema or cerebral edema) is a very serious condition that can be fatal. If you are experiencing edema, do not return to higher altitude.