Altitude Sickness: How to Treat It

Altitude sickness occurs when the pressure of the air around you known as barometric pressure changes too quickly. When you ascend to high altitudes, the barometric pressure drops and there is less oxygen available. Any time you travel to altitudes higher than 8,000 feet, you can be at risk for altitude sickness. Anyone is susceptible to altitude sickness. Levels of fitness and age do not play a part in who is likely to develop the condition. Being able to recognize the early symptoms of altitude sickness is the first step to treatment.

The first thing to do for the treatment of acute or mild altitude sickness is to stop ascending altitude until your symptoms have dissipated. Mild altitude sickness can also be treated with rest and pain relievers for headaches. If you are experiencing any symptoms of altitude sickness, avoid alcohol, sleeping pills, pain medications and narcotics. These can all slow your breathing which is already affected by the high-altitude conditions. The prescription drug Acetazolamide can speed the recovery of mild altitude sickness. This drug works by balancing your blood chemistry and simulating breathing.

More severe altitude sickness is called HAPE (high-altitude pulmonary edema) and HACE (high-altitude pulmonary edema), the symptoms of these conditions would include but are not limited to dizziness, lethargy, blurred vision and nausea. For treatment of these symptoms immediate descent from altitude is necessary along with care from a doctor/hospital. Dexamethasone, which decreases brain swelling, may be prescribed in this case. Time spent in a portable hyperbaric chamber, which simulates a lower altitude, can also be beneficial.

The best way to lower your chances of getting altitude sickness is through acclimatization. Acclimatization can be accomplished by the following steps.

  • Slowly gain altitude – Spend at least one day gradually gaining altitude before reaching your destination
  • Play high, Sleep Low (or in an Oxygenated Room) -Sleep at lower elevations than you play. If you are hiking or skiing at altitudes above 8,500 feet, say in accommodations as low as practicable. Either in real or simulated altitude.
  • Stay hydrated. Avoid dehydration by drinking five, eight-ounce glasses of water prior to reaching a higher altitude and while at that altitude.
  • Don’t use tobacco, alcohol, narcotics or sleeping pills
  • Know how to identify the first signs of altitude sickness. Immediately move to a lower elevation if you start to develop these symptoms.