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Altitude Sickness: Feeling a Little Woozy?

Updated on February 21, 2014

Altitude Sickness

When you know you are going to go up into the mountains or heading up toward higher altitude, you might want to consider altitude sickness symptoms. Although altitude sickness is usually mild and your body eventually acclimates, it can turn out to be fatal depending on other health conditions you might have. You are also more likely to experience altitude sickness if you ascend to higher altitudes in a short period of time when driving over a mountain pass, arriving at a mountain resort, or hiking to a higher altitude.

Altitude sickness comes about because the amount of oxygen you inhale at higher elevations is less than at lower altitudes. Your body needs time to adjust to this. In addition, higher altitudes also result in lower air pressure. The first symptom you will likely feel is a headache. This can come on pretty soon after you ascend to higher altitudes. This is basically your body crying for oxygen.

Other symptoms that may crop up are:

  • loss of appetite
  • nausea or vomiting
  • rapid pulse or heart rate
  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness or light-headedness
  • fatigue
  • difficulty sleeping

Typically, these symptoms don't last more than a couple of days before your body acclimates to the altitude.

In more severe cases, fluid can collect in the lungs causing extreme shortness of breath. More severe altitude sickness can also result in:

  • confusion
  • cough
  • chest congestion or chest tightness
  • decreased consciousness
  • inability to walk in a straight line

Some people have commented that having altitude sickness feels like having a hangover...

Altitude Sickness Treatment

The best thing to do if you think you are suffering from altitude sickness is to drink a large amount of water.  In fact, if you know you are going up into higher altitude, you might even want to chug a bottle of water before heading up. 

In order to get rid of the headache, any over-the-counter medication will work, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil). 

Avoiding alcohol for the first day or so when in the mountains is also a good idea.  Also in the first couple days in high altitude, you might also consider limiting your exercise.  Rest helps.  Save the long hike for a few days into your trip or stay.

If symptoms do not go away, you may consider finding an oxygen chamber, seeing a doctor, or trying to find a way to get to lower altitude.  Ideally, you are not feeling altitude sickness symptoms for more than a day or two.  If you already suffer from lung diseases or have lung issues, you might reconsider your trip to the mountains and head to the beach instead where you will be at sea level. 

About Altitude Sickness


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