Altitude Sickness: Treatments & Prevention

by Kiran Patil last updated - Medically reviewed by Tamanna Sayed

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People ascend to high altitudes for different purposes. It could be work, athletic competition or mere recreation. Changes such as a decrease in temperature and humidity and a drop in barometric pressure are some of the environmental features observed at high altitudes. The drop in the barometric pressure or the atmospheric pressure causes a decrease in the partial pressure of oxygen also known as hypoxia. This triggers a series of physiological responses, which, in general help, the individuals tolerate and adapt to the low oxygen conditions. However, in some cases, maladaptive responses result in one of the three forms of acute altitude illness, acute mountain sickness (AMS), High-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE).

It is important to know that these conditions can develop at any stage from several hours to about 5 days following ascent to a given elevation and can range in severity from mild to even life-threatening situations.
AMS usually occurs at altitudes greater than 2500 m and is characterized by some or all of the symptoms of headache, weakness, fatigue, nausea, insomnia and suppressed appetite. HAPE is characterized by shortness of breath, coughing, and the production of blood-stained sputum. HACE is characterized by confusion, ataxia and diminished level of consciousness.

Home remedies for altitude sickness include drinking water, avoiding exercise, and consuming acetaminophen, herbal mixtures, lemon soda, and ginger.

Remedies for Altitude Sickness

While home remedies prove substantially helpful in dealing with the symptoms of altitude sickness, it is also important that one go for a proper medical check-up if the condition is severe. In addition to this, it is hard to get medical assistance in hilly and mountainous regions, therefore, one should be aware of certain treatments and remedies to prevent altitude sickness both before changing altitudes, and while you are experiencing it.

Combination Drugs

Treatments for altitude sickness include the use of medicines like aspirin (only for adults), ibuprofen, and more. To treat the condition, the doctor will prescribe medications for each symptom respectively, like Zofran for nausea, sleeping pills for insomnia, and so on.

They will also provide the patient with oxygen, if available, and other medications to lower the blood pressure levels, such as nifedipine. In advanced cases, incubation and breathing machines may also be required. For swelling of the brain (cerebral edema), they’ll prescribe dexamethasone.

In highly advanced conditions, surgery may also be required.

Acetaminophen

Rather than using combination drugs like aspirin, which have side effects, it’s advisable to use acetaminophen, a safer drug that confers instant relief from pain at higher elevations.

A man standing on a snow covered mountain drinking water

High altitude sickness

Home Remedies for Altitude Sickness

Let us look at the different home remedies and measures to avoid altitude sickness.

Eat Digestible Food

Avoid eating heavy, oily, junk foods while ascending in height. You should also eat in small portions. Eat foods that are easily digestible, so your body doesn’t expend energy more than it can afford. It is also important that you add foods rich in carbohydrates in your diet, such as legumes, oatmeal, dates, dry fruits, and whole wheat.

Include foods that are rich in Vitamin C and E as they are rich in antioxidants and also boost your immunity. Sources include citrus fruits, yellow-orange-colored fruits, and vegetables, nuts like almonds, hazelnuts and sunflower seeds.

Drink Water

When your breathing becomes fast and deep, you tend to dehydrate at a faster rate. To counter this, drink water in considerable amounts to keep yourself well hydrated. Drink double the amount of water than what you may consume at home. This is because, at higher altitudes, the atmosphere becomes very dry, thereby increasing the need for water. Be vigilant and check whether the urine is clear and in proper quantities. Alcohol can add to the dehydration problem, so it is better to avoid it completely, especially when you are climbing at higher elevations.

Avoid Exercises

Exercising should be avoided, even if it is not rigorous until you are completely regulated to the new altitude. Thus, when you are at high altitudes, invest more of your time in leisure activities, rather than in those which require the expenditure of energy.  Limiting exertion is better than using a bunch of different medications. Activities, like running, hiking, lifting, or straining in any capacity, can worsen the symptoms of altitude sickness.

Herbal Potions

These herbal potions are made from the common ingredients which are easily found at home. Ingredients include basic and normal things like lemon, water, ginger, garlic, and honey. Drinking the potion helps in building body stamina, and fighting colds, coughs, fevers, and headaches, while also providing the energy to combat the metabolic effects of high altitude areas.

Lemon Soda

This can be taken to prevent vomiting, the colloquial tendency. However, home remedies are more useful and easier to get. You can take a glass of fresh sweet lemon soda, digestive capsules made of herbs and natural ingredients like green mango, amla, ginger, or methi.

An infographic on remedies for altitude sickness

Ginger and lemon can be helpful in case of altitude sickness. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Ginger

Christopher Hobbs, the renowned herbalist, believes ginger to be very beneficial when dealing with altitude sickness, as it plays a pivotal role in treating mild levels of altitude sickness. It is advisable to mix 20 drops of ginger liquid with a half cup of water in case you suffer from altitude sickness. You can also choose to suck on ginger candies or drink ginger tea whenever you feel queasy. This can be attributed to its anti-inflammatory properties.

Ways to prevent

In order to prevent altitude sickness or mountain sickness, one needs to follow appropriate dietary instructions and adopt other measures like proper diet plan and take certain other measures like no consumption of alcohol and caffeine, no smoking as mentioned above.

Acclimatization: This is a process that allows your body time to adapt to the change in the oxygen concentration at higher altitudes. In other words, it means ascending to a higher level at a slow pace. The following changes that occur in the body that help in acclimatize include:

  • Deep breathing.
  • Producing more red blood cells in the body to carry more oxygen in the body.
  • Increasing the amount of oxygen that is released from the blood to the body tissues.

Guidelines for proper acclimatization include:

  • Start below 10,000 feet and gradually walk to a higher altitude instead of driving or flying. If you choose to drive or fly to an altitude over 10,000 feet, then stay at your first halt for about 24 hours before going higher.
  • If you’re climbing or hiking above 10,000 feet, increase your altitude by no more than 1,000 feet a day and take a break for every 3,000 feet attained.
  • Pay heed to these – ‘’ Climb high but sleep low’’ which means if you climb more than 1,00 feet a day then descend to sleep at a lower altitude.
  • Always move to a lower altitude if symptoms develop.
  • Mountains experts recommend carrying enough tanks of oxygen to last for several days when choosing to climb above 10,000 feet.

People who are at risk of developing anemia should seek doctor’s advice for taking an iron supplement for maintaining blood oxygen levels. Mountaineers with any underlying cardiac or pulmonary ailments should also exercise caution regarding high-altitude travel.

  • Medicines can be taken before you begin the ascent, such as acetazolamide (Diamox) to prevent acute mountain sickness.
  • Besides, at night one should ideally sit by the fire in order to avoid getting hypothermia.
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About the Author

Kiran Patil is the founder of Organic Facts. He has a keen interest in health, nutrition, and organic living. He completed his B.Tech and M. Tech (Chemical Engineering) from IIT Bombay and has been actively writing about health and nutrition since over past 12 years. When not working he likes to trek and do gardening.

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