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Altitude Sickness and its preventive measures

Altitude sickness is a common illness that happens in a person when he moves from a lower elevation region to a higher (generally above 3000m). It generally occurs due to a decrease in oxygen levels in the atmosphere at higher altitudes.

The symptoms of altitude sickness can range from mild to fatal. Some people are slightly affected while some people feel horrible. The basic syndromes of altitude sickness are very similar to that of hangover i.e. headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, etc.

Major Cause of Altitude Sickness

The major cause of altitude sickness is low atmospheric pressure and low oxygen level. As one ascends from sea level to greater altitudes, air pressure and oxygen levels both decrease steadily. Climbing too quickly prevents the climber's body from adapting to low oxygen levels and air pressure variations. As a result, altitude sickness symptoms emerge. People from the plains and lower regions are more prone to become ill in mountainous areas.

Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness can progress to a medical emergency if not treated in time. To avoid such problems, search for the following symptoms:

a)    Mild, transient altitude sickness: These are the symptoms that most people experience 12 to 24 hours after arriving at higher altitudes. Symptoms include:

·       Tiredness and energy shortage

·       Feeling dizzy and having a headache

·       Breathing difficulties

·       Appetite loss

·       Sleeping issues

These are not alarming symptoms because the climber's body begins to acclimate to the surroundings and symptoms subside after a day or two.

b)   Moderate to severe altitude sickness: These symptoms do not diminish with time but can worsen. Instead, these symptoms worsen.

·       Severe headache

·       Nausea and vomiting

·       Worsening tiredness and weakness

·       Chest tightness or congestion with deteriorating breathing problems

·       Problems with coordination and walking

If these factors are not appropriately checked, the climber may get HAPE. It is a condition in which fluid builds up in the lungs, preventing oxygen from moving throughout the body.

·       Shortness of breath even while resting

·       Turning of skin, nails, or white eyes to blue

·       Confusion and illogical conduct

·       Coughing up a frothy white or pink substance

Who can get altitude sickness?

The risk of altitude sickness is unaffected by age, gender, or physical fitness. Also, just because someone hasn't had it before doesn't mean they won't have it on a future trip.

It all depends upon whether or not the climber's body gets enough time to adapt to changing oxygen levels and atmospheric pressure.

Types of Altitude Sickness

·       Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) – It is the mildest and most common form. AMS leads to symptoms like a hangover i.e. headache, nausea, fatigue, etc.

·       High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) – This illness occurs when fluid builds up within the lungs which makes breathing extremely difficult.

·       High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) – It is a severe form of altitude sickness where fluid builds up within the brain. It results in swelling of the brain with fluid which ultimately leads to changes in a mental state like loss of coordination and coma.

HAPE and HACE can be fatal if not treated in time.

Make a proper decision

At high altitudes, any problem can be due to altitude sickness. So, therefore do not try to go up until you are sure that it is not because of AMS. Stay on the same altitude until the symptoms are gone or else come down if your condition gets worse.

Preventive Measures

Acclimatization is the best preventive measure for altitude sickness. Acclimatization refers to the adaptive physiological changes that occur as a result of repeated exposure to a variety of environments. This implies that gradually increasing the height allows the climber's body to adjust to the difference in air pressure and low oxygen levels. Acclimatization can be accomplished by:

·       Gradually climbing to higher altitudes with enough resting time

·       Beginning the ascent below 10,000 feet (For example, climbers should not drive or fly beyond 10,000 feet to begin climbing.)

Some other basic measures to prevent altitude sickness are:

·       Avoid tobacco, alcohol, and medicines such as sleeping pills, especially within the first 48 hours. Caffeine is harmless if used regularly.

·       Drink 3-4 quarts of water every day, and make carbohydrates account for 70% of your calories.

Golden Rules

·       “CLIMB HIGH and SLEEP LOW” – In the days separated for acclimatization, you can ascend to a higher elevation during the day but at night return to the lower elevation for sleeping. This helps you in acclimatization.

·       If you get mild symptoms, stop and take aspirin if the condition worsens get down.

·       Do not ever travel alone.


Altitude sickness can only be treated by fellow climbers if it has not progressed to severe levels.

Acute mountain sickness can be treated with certain drugs and rest for a day or two until the symptoms subside. However, if the patient still feels discomfort after a day, this sickness can be also addressed by lowering the patient's altitude by 1,000-2,000 feet. This should improve the patient's health within a day. The patient should be entirely recovered in 3-4 days.

Severe altitude sickness/HAPE should be treated as soon as possible. The patient should be quickly dropped to an altitude of no more than 4,000 feet and hurried to medical attention. Hospitalization may be necessary.

If health care is accessible, it is preferable to monitor patients' vital signs regardless of their illnesses.

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