Altitude Sickness

Meanings of Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness describes a number of common symptoms that occur at high altitudes. It occurs when the physical mechanisms to adapt to the altitude fail, for example by climbing too quickly. Therapy consists of a descent.

What is Altitude Sickness?

The most common symptoms of altitude sickness include shortness of breath, headaches, dizziness and nausea. In many cases, these abnormal sensations lead to vomiting.

According to abbreviationfinder, altitude sickness occurs in people who live at high altitudes or venture to high altitudes over 2000 meters. Ascending too quickly and the associated lack of oxygen in the brain, the affected person suffers from a variety of symptoms such as loss of performance, fatigue, headaches, nausea and vomiting, breathing difficulties, dizziness, tinnitus and sleep disorders.

A reduced kidney function is also possible and leads to an increased salt content in the body. Depending on the severity, a distinction is made between the mild and the severe form of altitude sickness, in which, in addition to the symptoms described above, life-threatening edema in the brain and/or lungs occurs.

It is interesting that the body can adapt to life at altitudes over 2500 meters: while many Andean people suffer from altitude sickness, Tibetans have a genetically required increased respiratory rate, which is calledprotectionagainst altitude sickness.


The cause of altitude sickness is that with increasing altitude, the air pressure changes so that the lungs receive less oxygen. In addition, the intense exertion at these altitudes leads to increased blood pressure, which forces fluid into the lungs.

The interaction of these factors causes the body to be undersupplied with oxygen. This reacts with reflex hyperventilation, and more CO2 is emitted. The blood becomes too acidic with the first symptoms of altitude sickness and, if left untreated, acute, severe altitude sickness with edema and danger to life.

Various risk factors promote the development of altitude sickness, including previous illness, overexertion, climbing too quickly, insufficient fluid intake and the weakening of the body through alcohol, infections or sleeping pills and drugs.

Symptoms, Ailments & Signs

The most common symptoms of altitude sickness include shortness of breath, headaches, dizziness and nausea. In many cases, these abnormal sensations lead to vomiting. Furthermore, sick people suffer from disturbed sleep behavior, which has a negative effect on the overall performance of the body.

Other signs of altitude sickness are dizziness, tachycardia, cramps, high heart rate and high blood pressure or a dry cough. In addition, disorders of consciousness (slow to no reactions to environmental influences) occur, which shows a disturbed neurological background. These disorders must be examined medically.

Sick people also tend to develop edema. Edema is water retention in the connective tissue under the skin. These are dangerous as they can amplify themselves. Pressure increases within the blood vessels, damaging surrounding tissue and thus vital organs.

In the worst case, however, edema can also form in the brain of the affected person. Then one speaks of a high-altitude cerebral edema, which is life-threatening. The life-threatening high-altitude pulmonary edema can be observed in divers. Both types of these symptoms require immediate medical attention.

Diagnosis & History

Since the symptoms usually decrease with a descent, the patient is dependent on self-diagnosis and observation by his companions. The first symptoms appear up to 24 hours before the onset of cerebral and pulmonary edema, leaving sufficient time for a controlled descent, the most important countermeasure.

Signs of mild altitude sickness are headaches that occur together with any of the symptoms described above. If the person concerned is already suffering from the severe form of altitude sickness with cerebral edema, the most important indication is a disturbance in the coordination of movements. Countermeasures must be taken immediately to rule out life-threatening courses and to avert the fatal course of altitude sickness.


Symptoms and complications of altitude sickness always occur when the patient is at a high altitude and the body cannot adapt to the characteristics of the environment. In most cases, nausea and headaches occur, and shortness of breath often occurs. The shortness of breath often leads to a panic attack.

It can also lead to tachycardia and loss of appetite. The affected person is no longer able to take a lot of stress and is also unable to undertake any particular physical exertion himself. Sleep disturbances can also occur, leading to increased fatigue. In severe cases, there are disturbances of coordination and disturbances of consciousness.

In the worst case, the patient may die due to problems with the brain or lungs. As a rule, altitude sickness cannot be treated directly, so that a descent may be necessary if the symptoms appear. A very slow increase often helps so that the person concerned can get used to the new conditions. Usually there are no further complications.

When should you go to the doctor?

A doctor’s visit is necessary as soon as health problems arise during a stay at higher altitudes. If there are no colds, symptoms such as headaches, dizziness or feeling unwell are unusual and should be clarified by a doctor. Altitude sickness primarily affects people who live in areas above 2,000 m. Intense complaints are often experienced by people who live or work there. Since descent is not a permanent solution for these individuals, a doctor should be consulted as soon as life-threatening problems arise.

A doctor is required in the event of breathing disorders, persistent tiredness, weakness or a drop in performance level. If the everyday requirements can no longer be met, it is advisable to discuss the situation with a doctor. Various measures can be taken to improve health. People who only temporarily visit regions at high altitudes should seek advice in advance about the correct behavior if symptoms arise. It is often sufficient to pause or leave the region again at the first symptoms. A doctor is not required in these cases. In case of severe circulatory problems, anxiety or disturbances of consciousness, a doctor should be consulted. If you lose consciousness, you need an ambulanceto be informed.

Treatment & Therapy

The treatment of altitude sickness consists of an immediate controlled descent to the nearest rest area and at least one overnight stay at this location to give the body a sufficiently long rest. The descent must be initiated immediately, if necessary also at night. It is generally better to treat altitude sickness when suspected than to stay at the altitude reached or even go higher.

In some cases, the recovery is sufficient and the ascent can be slowly continued. However, if the symptoms persist, the quick descent to safe altitudes below 2500 meters is the right decision. In the case of pulmonary edema with coughing, unconsciousness and disturbances of consciousness, there is an acute danger to life and the sick person must be ventilated as quickly as possible, placed in an overpressure backpack and brought down from a height. If transport by the companions is not possible, the mountain rescue service must be informed immediately.

Although there is the possibility of acute treatment with dexamethasone in the event of severe altitude sickness, this must under no circumstances be used to continue the ascent and is only intended as an immediate measure.


Altitude sickness can occur regardless of physical condition, but the risk can be minimized by observing a few basic rules: You should pay attention to complete physical health, sufficient rest, slow acclimatization and avoiding unnecessary exertion. Avoiding alcohol, drugs and medication and drinking enough fluids are essential measures.


Follow-up care is intended in particular to prevent the recurrence of an illness. That is why it takes place regularly after tumor diseases, for example, which enables early and life-saving treatment to be started. In the case of altitude sickness, however, such scheduled follow-up ex

Altitude Sickness

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