Join for Just $16 A Year
- Discounts on travel and everyday savings
- Subscription to AARP The Magazine
- Free membership for your spouse or partner
Hikers, skiers and adventurers who travel to high altitudes can sometimes develop acute mountain sickness, also referred to as altitude sickness or high altitude pulmonary edema. It typically occurs at about 8,000 feet, or 2,400 meters above sea level. Dizziness, nausea, headaches, and shortness of breath are a few symptoms of this condition. Most instances of altitude sickness are mild and heal quickly. In rare cases, however, altitude sickness can become severe, causing complications with the lungs or brain.
Higher altitudes contain lower oxygen and decreased air pressure. When you travel in a plane, drive or hike up a mountain, or go skiing, your body may not have enough time to adjust, resulting in altitude sickness. Generally, your level of exertion plays a role. Pushing yourself to quickly hike up a mountain, for example, may cause acute mountain sickness.
Your risk of experiencing acute mountain sickness is greater if you live by or near the sea and are unaccustomed to higher altitudes. Other risk factors include:
The symptoms of altitude sickness generally appear within hours of moving to higher altitudes, and vary depending on the severity of your condition. If you have a mild case, you may experience:
Severe cases of acute mountain sickness can cause more intense symptoms, affecting your heart, lungs, muscles, and nervous system. For example, you may experience confusion as a result of brain swelling. Or you may suffer from shortness of breath caused by fluid in the lungs.
Symptoms of severe altitude sickness may include:
Seek medical attention as soon as possible. The condition is much easier to treat if you address it before it progresses.
Your doctor will ask you to describe your symptoms, activities, and recent travels. During the exam, your doctor will most likely use a stethoscope to listen for fluid in your lungs. To pinpoint the severity of the condition, your physician may also order a chest X-ray.
Treatment for acute mountain sickness varies depending on its severity. You might be able to avoid complications by simply returning to a lower altitude. Hospitlization is required if your doctor determines that there is brain swelling or fluid in your lungs. Oxygen may be administered if you are experiencing breathing issues.
Medications for altitude sickness include:
Some basic interventions may be able to treat milder conditions, including:
Most people are able to recover from a mild case of acute mountain sickness quickly after returning to lower altitudes. Symptoms typically subside within hours, but may last up to two days. However, if your condition is severe and there is little access to treatment, complications can lead to swelling in the brain and lungs, resulting in coma or death. Therefore, it is essential to plan ahead when traveling to high altitude locations.
Here are important preventive steps to take before traveling to high altitudes:
When climbing to higher altitudes, prevent acute mountain sickness by doing the following:
Avoid climbing to high altitudes if you have any of the following conditions or if these situations apply to you:
Written by: Chitra Badii and Winnie Yu
Published on Jul 16, 2012
Updated on Apr 17, 2013
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD
Enter your symptoms in our Symptom Checker to find out possible causes of your symptoms. Go.
Enter any list of prescription drugs and see how they interact with each other and with other substances. Go.
Enter its color and shape information, and this tool helps you identify it. Go.
Find information on drug interactions, side effects, and more. Go.
Member access to health and insurance products and services at AARPhealthcare.com.
Members can get an instant quote with AARP® Dental Insurance administered by Delta Dental Insurance Company.
Members can save on eyewear with AARP® Vision Discounts provided by EyeMed.
Caregiving can be a lonely journey, but AARP offers resources that can help.