Altitude Sickness

Dr. Ayush PandeyMBBS,PG Diploma

November 21, 2018

March 06, 2020

Altitude Sickness
Altitude Sickness

What is Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness or mountain sickness occurs when reaching very high altitudes, or climbing high altitudes very quickly. As pressure decreases at higher altitudes, the body requires time to adjust to the changes. Altitude sickness is typically experienced when the height is over 8000 feet.

The different kinds of altitude sickness are:

  • Acute mountain sickness, which is the most common variety.
  • High altitude pulmonary edema, which can be fatal.
  • High altitude cerebral oedema, which is the deadliest of the three.

What are the main signs and symptoms of altitude sickness?

Symptoms vary depending on the kind of altitude sickness experienced. Some individuals may have generalised symptoms, while those with high altitude pulmonary oedema have fluid collecting in the lungs. In the case of high altitude cerebral oedema, fluid starts to collect in the brain.

Some generalised symptoms are:

  • Headache and giddiness.
  • Nausea and/or vomiting.
  • Tiredness, gasping for breath and loss of appetite.
  • Sleep disturbances.
  • Blue nails and lips.
  • Pale skin.

Generalised symptoms usually manifest within a few hours of being at higher altitudes and are likely to subside as the body adjusts. In more severe cases, the person may experience:

  • A severe headache.
  • Congestion in the chest.
  • A problem in walking.
  • Improper coordination.
  • Disorientation.
  • A severe cough with pink sputum.
  • Coma.

What are the main causes of altitude sickness?

The most important cause for altitude sickness is the climate change that is experienced by the individual to which the body is not able to adapt to. However, certain other factors that may contribute include:

  • Climbing very rapidly.
  • A history of altitude sickness.
  • Lack of acclimatisation.
  • Consumption of alcohol or drugs.
  • History of heart, lung or other systemic disorders.

How is altitude sickness diagnosed and treated?

Diagnosis is difficult since there are limited medical facilities and first aid. However, experiencing any of these symptoms or a combination of them, which persist and do not subside with time qualify as altitude sickness and need attention. A medical practitioner may listen to the lung sounds that can indicate fluid collection.

Subsequent medical intervention may include one among the following procedures to test for the condition:

  • ECG
  • X-ray of the chest
  • Blood tests

Treatment is critical when experiencing a severe form of altitude sickness. However, care is imperative for all cases. Care may include:

  • Descent to lower altitude and/or supplying artificial oxygen.
  • Medication for high blood pressure.
  • Inhalers to ease breathing and treat congestion.
  • Medication for improved blood flow to the lungs.
  • Medications for mountain sickness, which are usually given in the early stages of the ascent.


  1. Hackett P, Roach RC. Altitude Sickness. High altitude cerebral oedema. hamb 2004; 5(2):136-146
  2. MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia: US National Library of Medicine; Acute mountain sickness
  3. Wiedman M, Tabin GC. High-altitude retinopathy and altitude illness.. Ophthalmology. 1999 Oct;106(10):1924-6; discussion 1927. PMID: 10519586
  4. The Institute for Altitude Medicine. Institute For Altitude Medicine. [internet]
  5. Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme. A BRIEF GUIDE TO ALTITUDE SICKNESS. International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation. [internet]

Medicines for Altitude Sickness

Medicines listed below are available for Altitude Sickness. Please note that you should not take any medicines without doctor consultation. Taking any medicine without doctor's consultation can cause serious problems.

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