Wednesday, February 23

Altitude sickness
By Dr. Dustin Huntzinger and Dr. Richard Parker

Every year, millions of people leave their homes and travel to mountainous regions of the planet in search of adventure. As a result, thousands will suffer from high-altitude sickness.

When planning a trip to the mountains, especially for those who live near sea level, the following information is designed to create an awareness of and prevent dangers that can result from high-altitude travel.

What is this ailment?
High-altitude sickness is caused by the low volume of oxygen in the air at higher altitudes. The amount of oxygen in the air decreases with increasing elevation.

Most people do not experience high-altitude sickness at less than 7,000-8,000 feet. However, at altitudes above 8,000 feet, many begin to feel ill because of the lack of oxygen available to breathe. If one stays at a high-altitude for a longer period of time, the body will adjust to lower oxygen levels and high-altitude sickness will not be experienced.

High-altitude sickness primarily affects the lungs and brain. This ailment can be life-threatening, so it very important to learn and recognize the symptoms of high-altitude sickness.

Early symptoms of high-altitude sickness include:

  • weakness
  • headache
  • light-headedness
  • upset stomach
  • difficulty sleeping
  • shortness of breath at rest
  • confusion
  • inability to walk a straight line

How is it treated?
The treatment for high-altitude sickness is to increase the oxygen supply to the body. This is accomplished by descent to a lower altitude, where the oxygen concentration in the atmosphere is greater (usually, to at least 2,000 feet).

If symptoms are mild, you may be able to remain at the same altitude and rest until the body has a chance to adjust, or acclimatize, to the level of oxygen that exists at higher altitudes.

It is very important not to travel to a higher altitude until symptoms have completely disappeared.

A prescription medicine is available to treat high-altitude sickness. A doctor can prescribe Acetazolamide (diamox). This medicine should be taken when experiencing the first symptoms of high-altitude sickness. Some mountain visitors take acetazolamide preventatively, if sleeping above 9,000 feet, particularly if originating at or near sea level. Please note that acetazolamide interferes with the taste of carbonated beverages, including beer.


  • The use of alcohol can accentuate the effect of high-altitude, so beer should be avoided.
  • If severe lung or heart disease, or other medical conditions, such as pregnancy, sickle-cell anemia, etc., are present, please consult a physician prior to travelling to high altitudes.

How can it be prevented?
Several measures can be taken to prevent high-altitude sickness.

  • Allow time for the body to adjust to higher altitudes. The body begins immediately to acclimatize to the amount of oxygen in the air, but it takes days for the body to adjust completely. The closer one lives to sea level, the more time it takes to adjust to higher altitudes. Also, take time to adjust to higher altitudes prior to beginning strenuous activities.
  • Travel should be limited to approximately 1,000 feet of ascent per day after passing the 7,000-8,000 feet level.
  • Sleep at an altitude lower than the altitude where most daytime activities have occurred.

When taking these precautions, high-altitude travel will be a much safer and more enjoyable adventure.

The information, including opinions and recommendations, contained in this website is for educational purposes only. Such information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. No one should act upon any information provided in this website without first seeking medical advice from a qualified medical physician.

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