What Causes Altitude Sickness?

What Causes Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness, also referred to as AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), affects individuals at high elevations, usually above 2400 meters (8000 feet). The cause of altitude sickness has yet to be understood entirely.

It is believed to be the body’s difficulty adjusting to the decreased oxygen level at higher altitudes. When ascending high altitudes too quickly, the body may not have sufficient time to acclimate and adapt to lower oxygen levels.

Symptoms vary from mild to severe, including shortness of breath, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, and headaches. In rare cases, AMS progresses to more severe conditions like high altitude pulmonary edema or high cerebral edema, which are life-threatening if not treated promptly.

Understanding the causes of altitude sickness is vital for those planning to travel or participate in high-altitude activities. Proper acclimatization techniques help prevent the potentially dangerous condition.

Altitude Sickness Treatment Options

The severity of altitude sickness depends on factors like individual susceptibility, the rate of ascent, and the current altitude. Mild symptoms include fatigue, nausea, and headaches. Severe symptoms include coughing up blood, confusion, and difficulty breathing.

In severe altitude sickness cases, descending to a lower altitude is crucial to reduce the risk of life-threatening complications. Treatment options include:

  • Moving to a lower altitude to sleep.
  • Taking acetazolamide medication.
  • Using supplemental oxygen.
  • Receiving nifedipine or hyperbaric treatment

Acetazolamide is available from Anytime Doctor. Individuals may need medical attention, as untreated symptoms can worsen and become more severe. Those with a history of AMS are more likely to experience symptoms when traveling to higher elevations. They should take precautions to reduce the risk of developing altitude sickness.

The outlook for AMS depends on the individual and how quickly they acclimate to the change in altitude. Most individuals start to feel better as their bodies adjust to less oxygen and the change in air pressure. In severe cases, symptoms may require more intensive treatment, like MRI scans or hyperbaric chamber therapy, to alleviate symptoms and prevent further complications.

Considerations for Preventing Altitude Sickness

Preventive measures include being aware of AMS signs ranging from mild symptoms like nausea and headaches to more severe symptoms, such as confusion and difficulty breathing.

Dietary considerations for preventing altitude sickness include avoiding caffeine and alcohol, staying hydrated, and consuming a carbohydrate-rich diet. It is essential to allow the body to adjust to the altitude changes by gradually ascending to higher elevations.

Those with a history of AMS are advised to take preventative measures like acetazolamide before ascending. Awareness of the risks and taking preventative measures reduce the risk of altitude sickness.


The severity of AMS depends on factors like the rate of ascent, the current altitude, and individual susceptibility. Altitude sickness ranges from mild symptoms like nausea and headache to severe symptoms requiring medical attention.

It is important to rest, drink plenty of water, and consider moving to a lower elevation to sleep. AMS can be treated with medicines like acetazolamide. In severe cases, the best action is immediately descending to a lower elevation with time to adjust and more oxygen. 

Why not sign up to our weekly newsletter to be sent our top trending articles and latest news?

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.