How to Recognize and Treat Altitude Sickness: Your Ultimate Guide

Picture this: You’re standing on a mountaintop, wind tousling your hair, eyes soaking in the panoramic beauty—you feel like the king or queen of the world. Now, imagine this royal experience getting royally messed up because you suddenly feel dizzy and nauseous. Yikes! Welcome to the altitude sickness zone. It’s the equivalent of Mother Nature saying, “Hey, easy there, tiger!” So before you go conquering heights, let’s make sure you’re well-equipped to deal with this sneaky condition.

What is Altitude Sickness?

Definition and Types

So, what is altitude sickness? It’s a condition that can hit you when you’re at high altitudes, often above 8,000 feet. Symptoms range from mild headaches to severe respiratory issues. The key to prevention? Acclimatize. As for treatment, heading to lower altitudes and medication usually does the trick. It comes in three main varieties:

  • Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS): This is like the beginner level of altitude sickness. Most people get this to some extent.
  • High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE): This is when things get serious. It’s AMS but worse, affecting your brain.
  • High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE): Now we’re talking about your lungs filling up with fluid. It’s severe and needs quick attention.


So why does this happen? Imagine this: You’re walking up the mountain, and the higher you go, the less oxygen there is. Less oxygen means your body works harder to pump what little oxygen is available to your organs. Think of it like a car engine running with a blocked air filter.

Who is at Risk?

  • Newbies: If it’s your first time going high, be careful.
  • People with Pre-existing Conditions: Got asthma or heart issues? Extra caution is needed.
  • Young and Old: Both ends of the age spectrum should be cautious.

Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

Hey, don’t ruin a perfectly good trip by ignoring signs that something’s off. Knowledge is power! Here’s a table to make it easy for you:

Type of Altitude SicknessMain Symptoms
AMSHeadache, nausea, fatigue
HACESevere headache, confusion
HAPEShortness of breath, chest pain

Detailing the Symptoms

  • Headaches: Trust me, they’re no ordinary headaches. It’s persistent and worsens with activity.
  • Nausea: You may feel queasy and even throw up.
  • Fatigue: Imagine carrying an extra 20-pound backpack. That’s how your body feels.

Altitude Illness Prevention Strategies

So, we’ve talked about altitude illness risks and symptoms. Now, how do you prepare to avoid this unwelcome mountain guest?

Image alt text: How to Recognize and Treat Altitude Sickness

Author credit: By Spc. Mike MacLeod –, Public Domain,

Pre-travel Consultation

Chat with a healthcare provider before your trip. They can give you the lowdown on whether you should even be attempting high altitudes with your medical history.

  • Vaccinations: Are you up-to-date with the relevant vaccinations?
  • Medications: Diamox could be suggested for prevention.


  • Slow Ascent: Take breaks, your body will thank you.
  • Intermediate Altitudes: Try to spend a couple of days at medium height before going higher.

Nutrition and Hydration

  • Water: No kidding, aim for 3-4 liters a day.
  • Meals: Balanced meals are crucial. Carbs are your friends at high altitudes.

Equipment to Consider

  • Oxygen Tanks: Sometimes, you just need a boost.
  • Altimeters: It’s a tool to measure your altitude. Keep an eye on it.

Diagnosis for Altitude Illness

How do you know it’s altitude sickness and not just a bad burrito? Well, you’ve got two routes here.


  • Heart Rate: There are apps to monitor this.
  • Oxygen Levels: Pulse oximeters can be handy.

Medical Evaluation

But nothing beats a professional opinion. Blood tests and X-rays can be more conclusive.

Treatment for Altitude Disease

Alright, say you ignored the symptoms and pushed ahead. Now what?

Immediate Actions

  • Descend: Your best bet is to go as low as you can, as fast as is safely possible.
  • Oxygen and Hydration: Portable oxygen and staying hydrated can help your body recover.

Altitude Illness Medications

Here’s where those pre-travel consults come in handy.

  • Diamox: Helps with acclimatization.
  • Dexamethasone: This is for HACE.
  • Nifedipine: Used for HAPE.

Hospitalization: When Altitude Sickness Takes a Serious Turn

Ah, the point none of us want to reach—hospitalization. But here’s the thing: if you’re dealing with HACE or HAPE, or even a bad case of AMS that won’t budge, heading to a medical facility is not just smart—it could be life-saving.

When to Consider Hospitalization

You might think, “I’m tough; I’ll power through!” But if you’re experiencing extreme symptoms like shortness of breath even at rest, confusion, or chest pains, it’s no time to act like a hero. These symptoms indicate that you’re in need of serious medical help.

What Happens at the Hospital

So, you made the smart decision and you’re now at a hospital. What happens next? Initially, they’ll likely give you supplemental oxygen to get those levels back up and perform some diagnostic tests like X-rays or blood tests.

Tests You Might Undergo

  • Blood Tests: To check your oxygen levels and see if your organs are working okay.
  • Chest X-rays: Specifically for suspected HAPE to check for fluid in the lungs.
  • Brain Scans: If HACE is suspected, they might want to check for brain swelling.

Treatment at the Hospital

Let’s say the tests confirm that you have a severe form of altitude sickness. You’ll likely be put on medication immediately:

  • IV Fluids: To deal with dehydration.
  • Oxygen Therapy: More intensive than the portable oxygen tanks.
  • Medications: Dexamethasone for HACE and Nifedipine for HAPE are common.


After treatment starts, they’ll keep an eye on you. Your oxygen levels will be monitored, as will your overall condition. You’re not leaving until you’re stable—that’s a guarantee.

The Emotional Aspect

I get it, being hospitalized can be emotionally taxing. You might feel frustrated, scared, or even a bit embarrassed that you had to go to such lengths. It’s okay. The important part is that you listened to your body and took the necessary steps to get better.


Is altitude sickness fatal?

Yes, in severe cases like HACE and HAPE. Don’t mess around with this.

Can you get altitude sickness at 5,000 feet?

It’s uncommon, but rapid ascent can make it possible.

How long does altitude sickness last?

With proper treatment, symptoms usually improve within 48 hours.

Is coffee good for altitude sickness?

No, caffeine can dehydrate you, making things worse.

Can you build immunity?

Sort of. The more you expose yourself, the better your body becomes at adjusting.


And there we have it! That’s your A-Z on altitude sickness. Remember, the best cure is prevention. So talk to your healthcare provider, acclimatize, and enjoy those views safely. Mountains aren’t going anywhere, but it’s better if you’re healthy enough to climb them!