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Mountain Sickness


  • Mountain sickness is a condition that happens when you travel to high altitudes (heights). Mountain sickness is also called high altitude sickness. Oxygen levels in the air decrease as altitudes get higher. When there is less oxygen in the air, your body cannot get the oxygen it needs to function properly. Acute mountain sickness can happen when you climb to high altitudes too quickly, such as when mountain climbing or skiing. Chronic mountain sickness happens to people who live at higher altitudes all year long. When your body has less oxygen it makes more red blood cells and can cause your blood to become thick. Mountain sickness can cause you to have headaches, dizziness, tiredness, and trouble breathing. Severe (very bad) mountain sickness may cause fluid to collect in your lungs or brain, and may be life-threatening.
  • Your caregiver may know you have mountain sickness by learning what your symptoms are. Mild mountain sickness may go away by resting and allowing your body to get used to the decreased oxygen. In many cases, moving down to a lower altitude will take away your symptoms. Treatment may include oxygen and medicines to help you adjust to the oxygen level. For chronic mountain sickness, you may need to have some of your blood removed to reduce the amount of blood in your body. Treatment for mountain sickness may decrease your symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, and tiredness. Treatment may make it easier for you to breathe, and may even save your life.


You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment.


You may have an allergic response to the medicines used to treat your mountain sickness. Without treatment, your symptoms may get worse, and your condition may become life-threatening. Thickened blood in chronic mountain sickness may lead to eye swelling, or bleeding in your eyes. You may have decreased oxygen flow to your organs, and your heart may stop working. Fluid may begin to build up in your lungs and around your brain. You may get a lung infection and have increased trouble breathing. You may begin to have trouble walking and changes in your behavior and memory. You may pass out, have a seizure (convulsion), or go into a coma. A coma is when you look like you are asleep, but you cannot be woken up. Choosing not to treat your mountain sickness may even lead to death.


Informed consent:

A consent form is a legal document that explains the tests, treatments, or procedures that you may need. Informed consent means you understand what will be done and can make decisions about what you want. You give your permission when you sign the consent form. You can have someone sign this form for you if you are not able to sign it. You have the right to understand your medical care in words you know. Before you sign the consent form, understand the risks and benefits of what will be done. Make sure all your questions are answered.


An IV (intravenous) is a small tube placed in your vein that is used to give you medicine or liquids.


You may need extra oxygen to help you breathe easier. It may be given through a plastic mask over your mouth and nose. It may be given through a nasal cannula, or prongs, instead of a mask. A nasal cannula is a pair of short, thin tubes that rest just inside your nose. Tell your caregiver if your nose gets dry, or if the mask or prongs bother you. Ask your caregiver before taking off your oxygen.

Pulse oximeter:

A pulse oximeter is a device that measures the amount of oxygen in your blood. A cord with a clip or sticky strip is placed on your finger, ear, or toe. The other end of the cord is hooked to a machine. Never turn the pulse oximeter or alarm off. An alarm will sound if your oxygen level is low or cannot be read.


  • Ibuprofen or acetaminophen: Ibuprofen and acetaminophen are over-the-counter medicines that may help your headache pain.
  • Antinausea medicine: This medicine may be given to calm your stomach and prevent vomiting.
  • Carbonic anhydrase inhibitor: This medicine may be given to decrease swelling, and increase the blood flow to your brain. This medicine may also make it easier for you to breathe.
  • Steroids: Steroid medicine may be given to decrease inflammation (swelling).


You may need any of the following tests:

  • Blood tests: You may need blood taken to give caregivers information about how your body is working. The blood may be taken from your hand, arm, or IV.
  • Chest x-ray: This is a picture of your lungs and heart. Caregivers use it to see how your lungs and heart are doing. Caregivers may use the x-ray to look for fluid in your lungs or for signs of an infection. Chest x-rays also may show if your heart is enlarged.
  • Computerized tomography scan: This is also called a CT scan. A special x-ray machine uses a computer to take pictures of your brain or lungs. The pictures are done to show if you have fluid around your brain, or in your lungs. You may be given dye before the pictures are taken. The dye is usually given in your IV. The dye may help your caregiver see the pictures better. People who are allergic to iodine or shellfish (lobster, crab, or shrimp) may be allergic to some dyes. Tell the caregiver if you are allergic to shellfish, or have other allergies or medical conditions.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging: This test is also called an MRI. During the MRI, pictures are taken of your head. An MRI may be used to check your brain for swelling and fluid. You will need to lie still during a MRI. Never enter the MRI room with any metal objects. This can cause serious injury. Tell your caregiver if you have any metal implants in your body.

Treatment Options:

  • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy: This is also called HBO. HBO is used to get more oxygen into your body. The oxygen is given under pressure to help it get into your tissues and blood. You may be put into a tube-like chamber called a hyperbaric or pressure chamber. You will be able to see your caregivers and talk with them through a speaker. You may need to have this therapy more than once.
  • Phlebotomy: During phlebotomy some of your blood is removed through a vein to reduce the amount of blood in your body. Phlebotomy may be needed if you have thick blood from chronic mountain sickness.

The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

Learn more about Mountain Sickness (Inpatient Care)

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.