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This site is provided for informational purposes only. The information here is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition, and should not replace the care and attention of qualified medical personnel. Use the information on these pages at your own risk, and, as with any information pertaining to health, nutrition, mental health, or fitness, consult your physician before making any changes that might affect your overall health.

Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness is commonly written about as though it is the only negative thing that can happen to you at high altitude. It isn't, though at extreme altitudes, it can be life threatening.

Altitude sickness is usually not an issue at heights of less than 12,000 ft. There are exceptions to that though, often involving pre-existing health conditions, or lack of caution in increasing elevation.

Altitude sickness can cause headache, nausea, vomiting, breathlessness, and can be severe enough to flatten you. If you have symptoms, it is likely that they will get worse if you continue to climb, and they should not be ignored. Traveling alone can be extremely risky, because if you become disoriented, you may not be able to take action to help yourself.

At lower levels, 6-8000 ft, people sometimes mistake dehydration for altitude sickness. Since you exhale and perspire so much more moisture even at those levels, many people neglect to drink enough water, and find themselves seriously ill because of dehydration. At the first signs of symptoms, increase your fluid intake. Sip water (not other drinks), don't chug it. Just keep getting water into you. If the problem is dehydration, it should improve. If it does not, then you need to move back down to a lower altitude.

When ascending to a higher altitude, doing so slowly can help your body to adjust better. There is a point beyond which the human body can no longer adjust, but it has amazing power to compensate, if you give it the time to do so. It can take 2 months or so to fully adjust to a higher altitude though, so any adjustment you make on the way up a mountain is done by increased heartrate and breathing, and temporary vascular changes, and not in the same way that long term adaptation occurs.

The rules are:

  • Go slowly. Make changes from one altitude to another slowly so your body can compensate as successfully as possible.
  • Bring plenty of fluids, and drink frequently.
  • Don't move so fast that you overtire yourself.
  • Eat frequent carbohydrates to provide easily accessible energy.
  • Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and other substances that can interfere with good delivery of oxygen in your body.
  • Make sure that if you take medication for breathing issues, or for circulatory issues, that you maintain regular dosages as recommended by your doctor. This is not the time to forget to take your meds!
  • Pack layers of clothing so you can help to regulate your temperature. Maintaining a comfortable layer of clothing can reduce the amount of work your body has to do to heat or cool.
  • Altitude sickness is not something to obsess over. If you plan to travel to extreme altitude, then you need to study up on it ahead of time because it is almost certain to affect you. At lower levels though, you just need to be aware of what the symptoms are so that you can help yourself, or get help, if you happen to be one of the exceptions that is affected by it at lower altitudes than average.

High Altitude Library

Editorial Comments throughout this site written by Laura Wheeler (with occasional sarcastic remarks by her son, David). Laura is a 10 year resident of Medicine Bow, Wyoming, where the altitude is greater than the population. Medicine Bow is at 6200+ ft above sea level, and boasts a total of 297 residents from the last census. Laura is an experienced technical, health and family writer.

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