Altitude Sickness: What Causes It and How To Get Relief

Air contains less oxygen in higher altitudes, causing some people to experience the discomfort of altitude sickness. People suffering from altitude sickness often complain of a very bad headache or mild to severe nausea. They may also have trouble sleeping or may awaken in the night with the uncomfortable sensation that they aren’t getting enough air from each breath. That is because the effect of lowered oxygen levels is greater when sleeping.

No one can tell if you are susceptible to altitude sickness until you actually reach a higher altitude. Fit young people of either gender can get it as easily as middle-aged couch potatoes. We do know that the body eventually becomes acclimated to higher elevations. But in the meantime, altitude sickness can make you quite uncomfortable.

Most cases of altitude sickness are mild, but the condition can become very serious, so it should never be taken lightly. If a person with altitude sickness becomes faint, acts confused, or the skin loses color or becomes bluish, the situation is acute. If you are in doubt as to whether a person has altitude sickness or just a respiratory condition, the safest course is to take them immediately to a lower elevation and to get medical help. 

The cure for altitude sickness is simple: Move to a lower elevation. Your condition will improve even as you descend, but the change is greatest once you get closer to 1000 feet. While acclimatizing to higher altitude, take something  for the headache, drink lots of water to increase your hydration, and avoid alcohol, which has a dehydrating effect. In the meantime, enjoy sightseeing, but take it easy until your symptoms disappear, which could take as long as four days. Another strategy is to sleep at a lower altitude while visiting higher locations during the day. This assures that you will receive more oxygen while sleeping, which is when you will need it most.

If you have a cardiovascular or respiratory condition, do not travel to a high-altitude destination without permission from your attending physician.