Symptoms of altitude sickness

Symptoms of Altitude Sickness: 9 Warning Signs

Altitude sickness is a relatively common issue in Colorado and other western states. Anyone ascending above 6,000-7,000 feet elevation can develop symptoms of altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS). While mild symptoms are common and not usually an issue, AMS can be extremely unpleasant if you develop moderate symptoms. A severe case is a life-threatening emergency requiring immediate descent. The key to preventing the symptoms of altitude sickness is to increase your altitude gradually so your body has time to adjust and acclimatize. Here’s an introduction to altitude symptoms, prevention, and treatment.

Table of Contents

What Causes Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness is caused by the body’s inability to adapt quickly enough to the decreased air pressure and lower oxygen levels found at high elevations. As you ascend, atmospheric pressure decreases, which means there is less oxygen available for your body to utilize. This can cause a range of symptoms collectively known as altitude sickness or acute mountain sickness (AMS).

The primary cause of altitude sickness is the reduced oxygen levels, which lead to lower oxygen saturation in the blood. In response, the body tries to increase the amount of oxygen it receives by increasing respiration and heart rate. However, these compensatory mechanisms may not be sufficient, especially if you ascend too rapidly without proper acclimatization.

Types of altitude sickness

Mild Altitude Sickness

Mild altitude sickness, or acute mountain sickness (AMS), is a common condition affecting those who ascend to high elevations, typically above 8,000 feet (2,400 meters). It occurs when the body struggles to adjust to the decreased air pressure and lower oxygen levels at higher altitudes. While symptoms can vary among individuals, mild altitude sickness is generally not life-threatening and can be managed with proper self-care.

Symptoms of Mild Altitude Sickness:

  1. Headache: A persistent, throbbing headache is often the first noticeable symptom of mild altitude sickness. It may be mild to moderate and can worsen with exertion or when lying down.
  2. Dizziness or light-headedness: Feelings of unsteadiness or imbalance can occur, particularly when moving or standing up quickly.
  3. Fatigue or weakness: Individuals may experience a general sense of tiredness or lack of energy that is disproportionate to their level of exertion.
  4. Insomnia or difficulty sleeping: Sleep disturbances, including trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, are common at high altitudes.
  5. Shortness of breath upon exertion: Breathing may become more difficult, particularly during physical activities.
  6. Nausea or loss of appetite: Some people may experience an upset stomach or a reduced desire to eat.
  7. Swelling in the hands, feet, or face: Mild edema or fluid retention can lead to swelling in extremities and facial areas.

Treating Mild Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

To manage mild altitude sickness, it is essential to recognize and address the symptoms early. Here are some general recommendations:

  1. Rest: Give your body time to adjust to the altitude by taking breaks and avoiding strenuous activity.
  2. Hydration: Stay well-hydrated by drinking plenty of water, as dehydration can exacerbate symptoms.
  3. Pain relief: Over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help relieve headaches.
  4. Maintain a balanced diet: Eating regular meals with a good balance of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats can provide the energy needed to cope with the altitude.

If you are hiking or climbing, you can usually attempt to treat your symptoms and continue, especially if you are close to your high point. However, if your symptoms are putting you unnecessarily at risk or get more severe, you should descend immediately until they resolve.

Moderate Altitude Sickness

Moderate altitude sickness typically requires more immediate attention, as it can progress to severe altitude sickness if not addressed promptly.

Symptoms of Moderate Altitude Sickness:

  1. Persistent and more severe headache: Unlike mild altitude sickness, the headache in moderate AMS is usually more intense and does not improve with over-the-counter pain medications.
  2. Persistent vomiting: Nausea may progress to vomiting, making it difficult to stay hydrated and maintain adequate nutrition.
  3. Worsening fatigue and weakness: A significant increase in fatigue and weakness can make it challenging to perform daily activities and continue ascending.
  4. Increased shortness of breath: Breathing difficulties may worsen, occurring even at rest or with minimal exertion.
  5. Loss of coordination and balance (ataxia): Individuals may develop difficulty walking in a straight line or maintaining balance, which can be a sign of more severe altitude-related complications.
  6. Difficulty walking or performing normal activities: The combination of fatigue, weakness, and ataxia can make it challenging to carry out routine tasks or continue climbing.

Treating Moderate Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

When moderate altitude sickness is suspected, it’s important to take immediate action:

  1. Stop ascending: Do not continue to climb or ascend to higher elevations, as this can exacerbate symptoms and increase the risk of severe altitude sickness.
  2. Descend: If symptoms are severe or do not improve with rest, it is essential to descend to a lower elevation as soon as possible.
  3. Rest: Give your body time to recover and adjust to the altitude by taking breaks and avoiding strenuous activity.
  4. Hydration: Ensure you are drinking enough water to stay well-hydrated, as dehydration can worsen symptoms.
  5. Medical evaluation: Seek medical advice if symptoms persist or worsen after descending, as further evaluation and treatment may be necessary.

Moderate altitude sickness should not be taken lightly, as it can progress to life-threatening conditions such as high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) or high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) if not managed properly. Prioritizing safety and promptly addressing symptoms is crucial to prevent complications.

Severe Altitude Sickness

Severe altitude sickness can lead to dangerous complications, such as high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), which require immediate medical attention.

Symptoms of Severe Altitude Sickness:

  1. Shortness of breath at rest or with minimal exertion: Breathing difficulties become severe, making it hard to catch your breath even while resting.
  2. Inability to walk or stand, severe ataxia: Loss of coordination and balance becomes so pronounced that walking or standing becomes impossible.
  3. Confusion, altered mental state, or hallucinations: Cognitive function may be impaired, leading to disorientation, irrational behavior, or hallucinations.
  4. Chest tightness, congestion, or cough, which may produce frothy or pink sputum (indicative of high-altitude pulmonary edema, or HAPE): Fluid buildup in the lungs can cause respiratory distress, coughing, and frothy or blood-tinged sputum.
  5. Bluish discoloration of the skin or lips (cyanosis): Oxygen deprivation can lead to a bluish tint in the skin or lips, indicating inadequate oxygenation of the blood.
  6. Seizures or loss of consciousness: In extreme cases, individuals may experience seizures or lose consciousness as a result of severe oxygen deprivation.

Treating Severe Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

If you or someone you know is experiencing severe altitude sickness, it is crucial to take immediate action:

  1. Descend immediately: Rapid descent to a lower elevation is critical for survival, as it can help alleviate symptoms and reduce the risk of complications.
  2. Administer oxygen: If supplemental oxygen is available, it should be used to help increase oxygen saturation levels.
  3. Seek medical help: Severe altitude sickness is a medical emergency, and professional medical care should be sought as soon as possible. In some cases, medications such as dexamethasone or nifedipine may be prescribed to help manage symptoms or complications.

Severe altitude sickness is a serious condition that can be life-threatening if not addressed promptly. It’s essential to prioritize safety, recognize the symptoms, and act quickly to ensure the best possible outcome.

Tips for Preventing Altitude Sickness

When visiting Colorado, particularly the higher elevations of the Rocky Mountains, it’s essential to be aware of the risk of altitude sickness and take appropriate precautions. Here are some tips to help prevent altitude sickness in Colorado:

  1. Gradual ascent: If you’re coming from a low elevation, spend a day or two in Denver or another location at a moderate altitude before heading to higher elevations. This will allow your body to start acclimatizing to the altitude change. You can also camp near trailhead or stay in mountain towns before major climbs to acclimate even more.
  2. Climb high, sleep low: When exploring higher elevations, try to follow the “climb high, sleep low” principle. This means you can visit higher elevations during the day but return to a lower elevation for sleep, giving your body time to adjust.
  3. Stay hydrated: Drinking plenty of water is crucial for staying hydrated at high altitudes. Aim for at least 3-4 liters per day, and remember that altitude can exacerbate the effects of alcohol and caffeine, so consume these in moderation.
  4. Balanced diet: Eating regular, balanced meals can help provide the energy needed to cope with the altitude. Focus on a mix of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and avoid heavy or greasy foods that can be more challenging to digest at high elevations.
  5. Pace yourself: Don’t push yourself too hard when engaging in physical activities at high altitudes. Listen to your body and take breaks when needed to avoid overexertion.
  6. Monitor symptoms: Be aware of the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness, and if you notice any, take appropriate action, such as resting or descending to a lower elevation.
  7. Consider Medication: In some cases, medications such as acetazolamide (Diamox) can be taken as a preventive measure, particularly for those who are more susceptible to altitude sickness. Consult your healthcare provider before your trip to discuss whether medication is appropriate for you.
  8. Know your limits: If you have pre-existing medical conditions, consult your healthcare provider before traveling to high elevations to ensure it is safe for you. Be honest with yourself about your physical limitations and adjust your plans accordingly.

By following these tips and paying attention to your body’s signals, you can minimize the risk of altitude sickness and enjoy your time in Colorado’s beautiful mountains.

Altitude Sickness FAQs

Altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), is a condition that occurs when the body struggles to adjust to the decreased air pressure and lower oxygen levels at high elevations. It can cause a range of symptoms, from mild to severe, and in some cases, it can be life-threatening.

Symptoms of altitude sickness can vary depending on the severity, but may include headache, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, and swelling in the hands, feet, or face.

Altitude sickness can occur at elevations as low as 6-7,000 feet (2,400 meters) above sea level, but the risk and severity generally increase with higher altitudes.

Symptoms of altitude sickness can appear within a few hours to a few days after ascending to a higher elevation. The onset and severity of symptoms depend on factors such as the rate of ascent, individual susceptibility, and previous experience at high altitudes.

While individual susceptibility to altitude sickness varies, taking precautions such as gradual ascent, proper acclimatization, staying well-hydrated, eating a balanced diet, and avoiding overexertion can help minimize the risk of developing altitude sickness.

If you experience moderate or severe symptoms of altitude sickness, such as persistent vomiting, difficulty breathing at rest, confusion, or loss of coordination, it’s crucial to descend to a lower elevation and seek medical advice as soon as possible. Severe altitude sickness can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.

Yes, medications such as acetazolamide (Diamox) can be used to help prevent altitude sickness in some cases, while medications like dexamethasone or nifedipine may be prescribed for the treatment of severe altitude sickness or related complications. It’s essential to consult your healthcare provider before taking any medications for altitude sickness.

Altitude Sickness Symptoms: Now You Know

In conclusion, altitude sickness is a common condition that can affect those who travel to high elevations. It occurs when the body struggles to adapt to the decreased air pressure and lower oxygen levels found at higher altitudes. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and in some cases, can become life-threatening if not addressed promptly.

By staying informed about the symptoms, treatment, and prevention of altitude sickness, you can ensure a safer and more enjoyable experience when exploring high-altitude destinations. Remember to listen to your body, prioritize safety, and seek professional medical advice if symptoms persist or worsen. With proper preparation and care, you can conquer the mountains and create unforgettable memories in the great outdoors.

Additional Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – Altitude Sickness: The CDC provides comprehensive information on altitude sickness, including its causes, symptoms, prevention, and treatment. Click here.

Wilderness Medical Society – Practice Guidelines for the Prevention and Treatment of Acute Altitude Illness: This resource offers evidence-based guidelines for healthcare providers and individuals traveling to high altitudes. Click here.

High Altitude Medicine Guide: This resource offers a wealth of information on high-altitude illnesses, including altitude sickness, high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), and high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE). Click here.

Institute for Altitude Medicine: This organization provides information on altitude sickness, including symptoms, treatment, and prevention, as well as education and research updates. Click here.

International Society for Mountain Medicine (ISMM): The ISMM is a professional organization dedicated to mountain medicine research and education, with resources about altitude sickness and related conditions. Click here.

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Alex Derr, Creator of The Next Summit

Alex is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.

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