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Mountain Sickness

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Dec 2, 2022.

What is mountain sickness?

Mountain sickness, or high altitude sickness, is a condition that can happen when you travel to high altitudes. It is caused by the decrease in oxygen at higher altitudes. When there is less oxygen in the air, your body cannot get enough to function properly. Mountain sickness usually occurs within 24 hours after you travel to a higher altitude.

What increases my risk for mountain sickness?

  • Dehydration
  • Exercise at the higher altitude
  • History of mountain sickness
  • Heart or lung disease
  • Obesity

What are the symptoms of mountain sickness?

  • Headache
  • Dry mouth, lack of appetite, nausea, or vomiting
  • Weakness, tiredness, or dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Fast, shallow breaths
  • Fast heartbeat

How is mountain sickness diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and check your breathing and heart rates. You may need any of the following:

  • EKG: This test records the electrical activity of your heart. It is used to check your heart rate and function.
  • Neuro exam: Healthcare providers use this exam to check your brain function. They check how your pupils react to light. They may test your memory, hand grasp, and balance.

How is mountain sickness treated?

  • Oxygen: You may need extra oxygen if your blood oxygen level is lower than it should be. You may get oxygen through a mask placed over your nose and mouth or through small tubes placed in your nostrils.
  • Medicines:
    • Carbonic anhydrase inhibitor: This medicine helps you adjust to the higher altitude more quickly.
    • Acetaminophen: This medicine will help relieve your headache. You can buy acetaminophen without a doctor's order. Ask how much to take and how often to take it. Follow directions. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage if not taken correctly.
    • NSAIDs: These medicines decrease swelling and pain. You can buy NSAIDs without a doctor's order. Ask which medicine is right for you and how much to take. Take as directed. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems if not taken correctly.
    • Antinausea medicine: This medicine helps calm your stomach and prevent vomiting.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

What are the risks of mountain sickness?

You may get a lung infection and have increased trouble breathing. You may have trouble walking because of weakened muscles. You may have memory loss or pass out. You may have a seizure or go into a coma. Fluid may build up in your lungs and around your brain. Your blood may become thick from the lack of oxygen. This can cause the heart to work harder and may lead to heart failure. These problems can be life-threatening.

How can I manage my symptoms?

  • Move to a lower altitude: This usually relieves your symptoms.
  • Rest: Allow your body time to adjust to the decreased oxygen level at the higher altitude.

How can I prevent mountain sickness?

  • Travel slowly: Travel at a maximum rate of 1968 feet (600 meters) in altitude each day. Do not travel up more than 984 feet (300 meters) each day when you are above 9842 feet (300 meters). Pregnant women should not travel higher than 11,482 feet (3500 meters).
  • Sleep at lower altitudes: After you spend time during the day at higher altitudes, sleep at lower altitudes at night. This will help your body adjust to the decreased oxygen level. Once you are used to the higher altitude, you can spend the night there. Repeat this process as needed to travel to higher altitudes.
  • Do not exercise for the first 3 days at higher altitude: Exercise may increase your risk for mountain sickness.
  • Do not drink alcohol or take sedatives at higher altitude: These make it harder for your body to adjust to the altitude.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have a fever.
  • Your symptoms do not improve after you go down to a lower altitude.
  • You have a new cough.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • You have trouble walking.
  • Your lips, nails, or skin are blue.
  • You wheeze or cough up pink, foamy spit.
  • You have trouble breathing.
  • You have chest pain or you feel a flutter in your chest.
  • You are confused or more tired than usual.
  • You have a seizure.

Care Agreement

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 healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. 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.

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Further information

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