What Is the Best Remedy for Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness
Altitude sickness
  • Descent is the best remedy for all the stages of altitude sickness. It means to go down to a lower altitude as swiftly and safely as possible. 
  • For mild headache, rest and over-the-counter pain killers may provide relief. Most of the symptoms will typically go away quickly at a lower altitude. Maintaining adequate water intake may help.
  • Inhaling oxygen provides quick relief from symptoms. Some experienced climbers and hikers carry a portable oxygen chamber, called a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, with them. It is a body bag that is pumped full of air. On inflating, the bag increases the oxygen concentration. This allows the person in the bag with altitude sickness to breathe in more oxygen. This simulates going to a lower altitude.
  • Having 70% of the diet as carbohydrates may also keep AMS at bay.
  • Acetazolamide is one of the medications for the prevention and treatment of altitude sickness.  It increases the breathing rate allowing more oxygen to be taken in. This helps the body adjust to higher altitudes faster and reduces some of the symptoms of altitude sickness.
  • Dexamethasone is another important medication, especially if the person develops brain swelling (brain edema). It is generally reserved for moderate to severe form of altitude sickness.
  • Nifedipine is another medication that is used for the prevention of lung edema in Altitude Sickness.

What is altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness or mountain sickness, also called acute mountain sickness (AMS), refers to a group of symptoms occurring on climbing or walking to a higher altitude or elevation too quickly.  Since the body is unable to take in enough oxygen, breathing becomes difficult. It can become a medical emergency if ignored. 

What causes altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness occurs when a person moves to a higher altitude too quickly. This does not give time to the body to adjust to the low air pressure and low oxygen at high altitudes. The symptoms happen due to low oxygen (hypoxia) in the air and blood causing the blood vessels of the brain to swell (dilate). The dilated blood vessels in the brain may cause headaches and swelling of the brain. The swelling puts pressure on the brain, squeezing it against the skull. 

Altitude sickness may rarely advance to a more severe form of the illness called high altitude cerebral edema (HACE). HACE occurs when brain swelling becomes severe manifesting as severe headache, confusion, lethargy, lack of coordination, irritability, vomiting, seizures, coma and eventually death if untreated.

In some cases, the low oxygen causes the lungs to become leaky and accumulate fluid. This is called high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). This may cause cough, chest discomfort, pink frothy sputum and heart failure.

Who is at risk for altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness may affect anyone regardless of their age, gender or level of physical fitness. Altitude sickness is directly related to how rapid the climb to high altitude is. It is more likely to occur if the climbs are more difficult and take more strength and energy than with a slow and easy climb.

Some of the factors that determine a person’s risk for altitude sickness are:

  • Genetic makeup
  • A history of previous altitude sickness
  • Residing at an altitude below 3,000 ft
  • Presence of respiratory infections or diseases
  • Obesity
  • A rapid rate of ascent
  • Over-exertion before the climb
  • Alcohol consumption 
  • Taking sleeping pills


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