What is High Altitude Illness?

Jodee Redmond

High altitude illness is caused by a lack of oxygen. When a person travels to an area that is high above sea level, the air becomes thinner. Lower levels of oxygen mean that every time a person takes a breath, his or her body is not receiving the same concentration that they would get at a lower altitude. At higher altitudes, both heart and respiration rates increase. A potentially serious health consequence of climbing to a high altitude location is a pulmonary or cerebral edema, a condition involving fluid leaking into a vital organ.

High altitude pulmonary edema is typically seen in mountain climbers.
High altitude pulmonary edema is typically seen in mountain climbers.

The symptoms of altitude sickness will start within two days of arriving at a high altitude location. Mountain climbers who will be climbing to an altitude of around 8,000 feet (2438.4 meters) or higher need to be aware of this medical condition if they are going to be traveling to a location for a climb. Once they get to the climb site and start moving up the mountain, they may feel tired or have difficulty catching their breath.

The thinner air at high altitudes can lead to a higher heart rate.
The thinner air at high altitudes can lead to a higher heart rate.

Headaches are another symptom of high altitude illness. Other common symptoms of this disorder include difficulty sleeping, nausea and vomiting. Some people who experience this health issue report swelling in their hands, feet or face.

Travelers who are planning to visit a high-altitude location can prevent or lessen the symptoms of high altitude illness by giving themselves some time to get acclimatized to it. By taking a couple of days to get to an altitude of approximately 8,000 feet (2438.4 meters), mountain climbers and hikers will give their bodies a chance to adjust to the lower oxygen concentration at this level. By allowing themselves 24 hours to climb 1,000-2,000 feet (308.4-609.6 meters) after they reach the 8,000 foot (2438.4 meter) level, they will be better able to continue their climb.

To minimize the symptoms of high altitude illness, a traveler should plan to avoid strenuous activity for the first couple of days after arrival at his or her destination. Drinking more fluids will also help travelers to feel more comfortable. Anyone who is planning to consume alcohol at a high altitude location should realize that its effects are magnified.

People who have pre-existing health conditions affecting the heart or lungs are more likely to be affected by this condition. Anyone who is living with one of these health concerns should check with their doctor before traveling to a high-altitude location. There may be medications that can be prescribed to help prevent or lessen the effects of high altitude illness.

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


is there any long term illness for going to 30,000 to 40,000 with a high pressure mask?

Post your comments
Forgot password?