Altitude Sickness: Symptoms, Treatment & Medication

Overview

Altitude sickness is a group of symptoms that occur when you walk, climb, drive, or ascend any other way to a higher elevation too quickly. The following are the other manes of this sickness. These names include

  • Acute mountain sickness
  • Altitude illness
  • Hypobaropathy
  • Acosta disease
  • Puna
  • soroche

It is also called mountain sickness and there are essentially two types of altitude sickness.

  • Acute
  • High altitude pulmonary edema which is far less common

Altitude sickness occurs mainly in people who are visiting an area much higher and altitude than where they normally live. You may suspect that you have acute altitude sickness if you have a headache and dizziness. The most important thing is to recognize it as happening and then get to a lower altitude that is probably all you need to do in the case of high altitude pulmonary edema. The symptoms are more severe and you will notice additional symptoms and involve your lungs. With high altitude pulmonary edema you need to descend immediately and seek medical attention. You should also follow up with the pulmonologist to be assessed for your future of high altitude pulmonary edema.

Chronic altitude sickness is something we see in people who live in the mountains and around eight-thousand feet or above. You would develop pulmonary hypertension and noticeable symptoms. You would experience shortness of breath more than your friends and family. You might develop swelling of the legs, skipped heartbeats, and you need to limit your daily activities because of fatigue and shortness of breath. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness will help you know if you need to descend and get any further medical treatment to feel better again.

What are the indicators of altitude sickness?

Symptoms include pain in the head, dizziness, loss of appetite, and poor sleep. A less common form is high altitude pulmonary edema. The symptoms and effects of high altitude pulmonary edema more severe with additional symptoms that involve your lung. These include shortness of breath even at rest, you will have difficulty walking and you will have a cough that may produce frothy sputum and can be tinged with blood.

Persistent pain in the head, dizziness, unsteady gait or clumsiness, numbness, increased vomiting, and a gradual loss of consciousness are considered as the signs of swelling of the brain which is caused by the altitude sickness.

When to see a doctor

Consult your doctor or a therapist immediately if you are experiencing any of the symptoms described above. Your doctor should evaluate you for other possible causes of your symptoms before treating acute mountain sickness. Together, you and your doctor can determine the best way to manage your symptoms.

What are the causes of altitude sickness?

Ascending to a great height is considered as the main cause of acute mountain sickness or altitude sickness. Making extra efforts to climbing high and staying there for a long time also one of the various causes of altitude sickness. A person must breathe faster when they are climbing a mountain and it can raise the levels of blood oxygen. It has been observed in research that genetics contribute to the cause of chronic mountain sickness. The following are the genes that are common in people with chronic mountain sickness. These genes include

  • ANP32D
  • SENP1

How is altitude sickness diagnosed?

Your physician may not recommend any tests to confirm the diagnosis of acute altitude sickness. He or she will ask you about your travel history and conduct a physical examination of your body to check the symptoms of this condition.

The most common symptom associated with altitude sickness is going to be a headache. If a person is showing at least any of the symptoms described above may be diagnosed with this acute altitude sickness. If you are experiencing the symptoms that you think are acute altitude sickness then have a word with your physician regarding the symptoms of your body.

What are the treatment options available for altitude sickness?

Treatment depends on which type you have either acute mountain sickness or hate an abbreviation for high altitude pulmonary edema. Often, acute altitude sickness does not need to be treated. If you experience symptoms stop at arrest. Chronic altitude sickness also called chronic mountain sickness is pulmonary hypertension or high blood pressure in the lungs due to chronically low oxygen levels in the body which results in more serious symptoms.

If you have had high altitude pulmonary edema in the past or are suffering from chronic altitude sickness or if you need help preventing recurrences of acute mountain sickness, then you should consult your healthcare provider immediately. The following are the treatment options available for altitude sickness. It includes

  • Descending
  • Pure oxygen
  • Pain killers
  • Acetazolamide
  • Dexamethasone
  • Nifedipine

Let’s discuss the above treatment options in detail:

Descending

Someone with high altitude pulmonary edema should immediately descend to a lower altitude and seek medical attention. Rest is enough for the people who are showing mild symptoms and they can start ascending again.

Pure oxygen

Pure Oxygen
Source: miro.medium.com

People who are experiencing difficulties in breathing should get pure oxygen. This is a common treatment given by the physicians to the people with breathing difficulties at mountain resorts.

Pain killers

Acetaminophen
source: npr.org

Your physician may recommend pain killers such as Acetaminophen to help you to manage headache. Nausea, pain in the stomach, loss of appetite, dark urine, and clay-colored stools are the possible side effects of acetaminophen.

Acetazolamide

This drug is used to correct the chemical imbalance in the blood due to the acute altitude sickness. This medication also helps the person with altitude sickness to breathe properly. Acetazolamide can give you relief from the following symptoms caused by altitude sickness.

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Pain in the head

Changes in the sense of taste, dry mouth, tiredness, stomach upset, unable to see, and ringing in the ears are considered as the most common side effects associated with this medication.

Dexamethasone

This steroid hormone can improve your immune function and reduces the swelling of the brain. The following are the possible side effects of this medication. It includes

  • Tightness in the muscles
  • Muscle wasting or muscle weakness
  • Unable to see
  • Difficulty in breathing or unable to breath
  • Unusual thoughts or behavior
  • Rapid heart rate

The above side effects can occur at any time during drug use. You should consult your health care provider when you are experiencing the side effects of this medication.

Nifedipine

This medication can be used in the management of high blood pressure. It can give you relief from the following symptoms of altitude sickness. It includes

It is advised to take some rest after taking this medication. Pain in the head, cough, muscle cramps. Constipation, unable to maintain an erection during sexual intercourse and swelling in the legs or feet is the possible side effects of this drug.

How do you prevent altitude sickness?

Preventing altitude sickness is easy to do especially if you know the symptoms or have had it before. So, to prevent it ascend more slowly and give your body a couple of days of slowly going higher in altitude to adjust to the changes. Make sure you hydrate well and take it easy while you acclimate.

Try to avoid excessive alcohol as it will nullify the healthy steps you are taking. Lastly, there are medications that your physician can prescribe you to manage symptoms of altitude sickness. Preventing this condition is about knowing your body, your medical history, and properly preparing before going to a higher altitude.

Conclusion

If altitude sickness is a big problem for you, then talk with your physician about some of the available treatment options if you enjoy climbing. Your doctor can complete a physical exam and review your medical history to determine which treatment option would be best for you.

References

  1. http://archive.rsna.org/2012/12030009.html
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002929713003315
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6513207/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5726117/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6060196/

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