Altitude Sickness: Causes, Symptoms & Diagnosis

by Vanya Sharma last updated -

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Altitude Sickness is also known by the name of acute mountain sickness. At times, it also turns into High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), which can be a life-threatening condition. The basic reason for the cause of altitude sickness is also the failure of acclimatization of the human body beyond a certain elevation. Most of the time, the human body fails to adjust in terms of homeostasis of fluid balance and chemistry. At times, the process of acclimatization stretches from days to weeks, after which the body can at least respond to the external stimulus and normalize its metabolic rates accordingly.

According to the University of Buffalo Reporter, brain swelling, and pulmonary edema are major problems at high altitude.

Causes of Altitude Sickness

As you go to higher altitudes, the level of oxygen gradually drops, therefore, making it difficult to breathe. This usually happens when you hike, trek, or climb a hill very fast; your body finds it very hard to get as much oxygen as is required, causing you to breathe at a fast speed as well. This can result in the symptoms of altitude sickness, such as a headache, insomnia, and more.

Other causes include:

  • Overexertion during the ascent
  • Low levels of fluid in the body
  • Hypothermia, i.e., when the body temperature drops to dangerous levels
  • Alcohol intake

Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

Symptoms can be seen within 12 to 24 hours of arrival, and they normally increase at night as your body tries to achieve its resting metabolic rates.

  • Some of the symptoms are an increased rate of heartbeat, breathing problem due to physical exertion, nausea, tiredness, headache, and sleeplessness.
  • Air is thinner at high altitude areas. The higher you climb, the less oxygen your body is able to breathe, which is the fundamental reason for altitude sickness. To compensate for this, you can practice deep breathing exercises.

Altitude sickness can present itself with many signs and symptoms, let us discuss them below:

  • Discomfort
  • Insomnia
  • Shortness of breath
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Persistent rapid pulse
  • Pins and needles sensation in the body
  • Peripheral Edema, and
  • Fatigue

The symptoms of altitude sickness can worsen and become more serious if not managed in time. It can also cause:

  • Discoloration of the skin
  • Incessant coughing
  • Blood while coughing
  • A gradual loss of consciousness
  • Paranoia
  • A headache during the night
  • Ataxia, i.e., not being able to walk straight, and
  • The blueness of the nails and lips


Something to note about altitude sickness is that its symptoms can only be experienced 2500 meters above the sea level, which if n0t treated in time can be deadly. Therefore, it is necessary that you receive a proper and early diagnosis for your condition.

  • For diagnosis, the doctor will ask you a series of questions to check for the symptoms.
  • They will also use a stethoscope to check your heartbeat and for any shortness of breath.
  • The doctor will also look for any knocking or crackling sounds (rales) coming from your lungs to check if there is a build-up of fluids in there.
  • If there is a presence of water in your lungs (pulmonary edema), then this requires instant treatment.
  • The doctor will also perform a chest x-ray for this purpose.
  • Other tests may include blood tests, CT scan of the brain, and an Electrocardiogram (ECG). Protection Status
About the Author

Vanya Sharma handles the medical expert collaboration for Organic Facts. She is also responsible for the website’s monthly newsletter and website content and contributes to Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube regularly. A writer at heart, she joined the website while she was still pursuing her English Literature degree from IGNOU, Delhi, India. Vanya has completed the “Introduction to Food and Health” certificate program from Stanford University, US. She aims to bring unbiased and helpful information to all those seeking to make their health and lifestyle a priority.

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