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Two hikers walking at high altitude the alps.

Two hikers walking at high altitude the alps.
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Altitude sickness

If you normally live near sea level and travel to a high altitude, you might get altitude sickness. This page describes the symptoms of altitude sickness and what to do if you become sick.

What is altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness, also known as mountain sickness, is caused by the low oxygen levels in the air at altitudes above about 2,500 metres. It occurs when the body has not had time to adjust to less oxygen.

Altitude sickness can affect anybody - being young or physically fit does not decrease the risk. Whether or not you get altitude sickness could depend on:

Altitude sickness can be fatal if not treated.

What are the symptoms of altitude sickness?

If you have altitude sickness, you are likely to feel dizzy and weak, you might also have a headache and feel nauseous. It can feel like a hangover.

Altitude sickness can affect your lungs, in which case it is sometimes known as high altitude pulmonary edema or HAPE. People with HAPE can feel short of breath and have a cough and a racing heart. In extreme cases, their lips turn blue.

Altitude sickness can also cause your brain to swell with fluid, which is sometimes known as high altitude cerebral edema or HACE. People with HACE can feel confused and irritable and behave in an erratic way.

Altitude sickness can be worse at night and can last for days, even if you stay at the same altitude.

How is altitude sickness treated?

If you have altitude sickness, you should stay at the same altitude or go lower until the symptoms disappear. Rest, fluids and pain killers are likely to improve the symptoms. Do not continue to climb higher.

It is best not to drink alcohol or take sedatives or sleeping pills because they interfere with the body's adaptation to high altitude.

If you have signs of altitude sickness affecting their lungs or their brain, this is a medical emergency. You need help to descend as soon as possible. Breathing oxygen from a tank can help.

How is altitude sickness prevented?

If you're planning to travel to a high altitude, consider talking to your doctor about drugs that can help with acclimatisation, particularly if you have had altitude sickness before.

You can reduce the chance of getting altitude sickness by:

  • avoiding a rapid ascent from sea level - don't go above about 2,500 metres for the first night's sleep
  • once you get above 3,000 metres, ascending by no more than 500 metres per day
  • spending the night below the day's highest altitude
  • avoiding strenuous exercise before your body has had time to adjust to the lower oxygen levels
  • avoiding alcohol at high altitude.

If you have a medical problem that affects your lungs, heart or circulation, you are at increased risk of getting altitude sickness.

If you are worried that you have altitude sickness call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to speak to a registered nurse.

Sources:

Altitude (Altitude sickness), UpToDate (Patient information: High altitude illness (including mountain sickness) (Beyond the Basics)

Last reviewed: August 2016

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