CareNow® - January 11, 2022

You’re finally going on a long-awaited vacation to the mountains with your family. However, as you start making your way up higher and higher above sea level, you begin to not feel as good as you did at the beginning of your trip.

Pounding headache, nausea and feeling light-headed and dizzy—sound familiar? While these sound like symptoms of a nasty hangover, if you've done recent traveling to a higher altitude than what you're used to, you could be experiencing altitude sickness.

After you've traveled higher than 8,000 feet above sea level, you will start to experience altitude sickness symptoms. What causes these symptoms exactly? At higher altitudes, the air pressure drops, and less oxygen becomes available. The lack of oxygen causes your body and lungs to work harder than they typically would. No matter if you're a seasoned hiker or someone in optimal health, altitude sickness can affect anyone.

As you ascend to these heights, common altitude sickness symptoms are likely to kick in. The CDC cites symptoms such as:

  • Lack of appetite, nausea, or vomiting
  • Feeling exhausted or weak
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headache

Knowing how to treat altitude sickness and preparing your body can help prevent the grueling symptoms one might experience. You don't have to spend the first couple of days of your trip feeling awful. By ascending gradually and following these five tips, you can stay feeling healthy as you make your way up the mountains.

1. Hydration is key

With lower humidity and drier air, staying hydrated is even more crucial when at a higher altitude. Therefore, you should drink twice as much water as you would typically at home to compensate. Although tempting, try to avoid only sipping on caffeinated drinks throughout the day and alternate with a glass of water when you can.

Because the slopes tend to warm up throughout the day, it’s also a good idea to avoid overdressing as that can cause you to sweat more, which results in dehydration. Instead, opt for layers which can be removed as the weather heats up but will still keep you warm during the cold mornings and evenings.

2. Replenish nutrients

A healthy and nutritious meal can help your body acclimate and function better in high altitudes. Potassium-rich foods such as bananas, greens, avocados, dried fruit, potatoes and tomatoes are great options. In addition, complex-carbohydrate foods like whole grain pasta and vegetables can help maintain your energy and blood sugar levels during your ascent. Avoid eating foods with high sodium levels as they can contribute to dehydration.

3. Pace yourself

Slowly ascending to higher altitudes is often recommended and one of the most sure-fire ways to prevent altitude sickness. Unfortunately, sometimes this is not an option depending on your itinerary. If that's the case, take things slow for the first few days of your trip. Avoid strenuous exercise and go at a slower pace than normal. Don't give your body more difficulty than it's already experiencing. 

If possible, descend from the high altitude and let your body get acclimated, especially if your symptoms are severe.

4. Just breathe

Since a lack of oxygen causes altitude sickness, breathing is undoubtedly essential. Take breaks to make sure you are filling your lungs up with that much-needed air. Focus on breathing techniques such as in through the nose and out through the mouth. 

5. Relieve symptoms

Altitude sickness symptoms can be quite uncomfortable, but they can also be easily treated with home remedies and over-the-counter medication. For headaches, researchers at Stanford University found over-the-counter pain relief to be effective.

Keep in mind that most first aid stations found in parks and resorts usually have oxygen tanks handy to assist with anyone experiencing discomfort. This extra boost of oxygen can quickly subside your symptoms and give your body relief.

There are also portable oxygen products now available that are typically no bigger than a hair spray can. These can be a great on-the-go option for reviling symptoms on hikes, car rides or other activities. They can often be found at sports stores and some pharmacies. Having one of these cans can come in handy for a boost of oxygen and quick relief. 

How long does altitude sickness last?

Symptoms usually only take a day or two to subside once your body has gotten used to the effects of higher altitudes. However, there are more severe cases of altitude sickness, which may cause more intense and long-lasting symptoms. If you do not see your symptoms improving after 24-48 hours, it is best to seek medical help. 

Some symptoms of a more severe form of altitude sickness can include:

  • Confusion
  • Shortness of breath even while resting
  • Inability or difficulty walking
  • A cough that produces a white or frothy pink substance
  • Coma

Who can get altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness does not discriminate no matter your fitness level, age or prior health history. However, people with certain illnesses like diabetes or lung problems may encounter more discomfort and difficulty handling the higher elevations. If you do have preexisting conditions that may affect your ability to acclimate to the elevation, visit your provider before your trip. They can also provide prescription medications that may help.

Your chances of getting altitude sickness are also dependent on several factors like how quickly you ascend, how high above sea level you go and the altitude you sleep in.

The good news is most altitude-induced symptoms are mild. They can be easily treated on your own or avoided altogether. By following these tips, you can ensure your trip is enjoyable and not overshadowed by a couple of days of feeling ill.

If you’re suffering from severe altitude sickness symptoms, visit your local CareNow® urgent care clinic. We can recommend a medication for altitude sickness prevention and treatment and help alleviate any symptoms you’re experiencing.

Plus, we offer a convenient Web Check-In® feature that allows you to wait from anywhere so you don’t have to spend your trip sitting in a waiting room!

Disclaimer: Patients’ health can vary. Always consult with a medical professional before taking medication, making health-related decisions or deciding if medical advice is right for you.