What is Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness is an ailment that strikes travelers who venture up into gorgeous mountain habitats, high above sea level. Those who have experienced altitude sickness, know that it is a very real, and terribly unpleasant condition, that if extreme, can be dangerous.

Air is Thinner at High Altitudes

The percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere is the same at both low and high altitudes. If this is the case, what causes altitude sickness? The issue is not the oxygen levels in the air, it is the pressure of the air in the atmosphere.

The higher you are above sea level, the lower the pressure in the atmosphere. This is referred to as “thin air.” What does this term actually mean? When you decrease pressure, there are fewer molecules, of all types, including oxygen, present. So thin air has less total oxygen for you to inhale than the more compressed air at sea level. This is the root cause of altitude sickness 1.

What is Altitude Sickness?

If you start to feel sick within a day (or sometimes two) of ascending to higher altitudes, you may have altitude sickness. Symptoms can be flu-like and in severe cases similar to a chest cold. When I’ve experienced it, I’ve had a wicked headache, vomiting, and aches throughout my entire body. These are just a couple of the symptoms of altitude sickness, which is also referred to as high altitude illness (HAI), and acute mountain sickness (AMS).

Altitude sickness is thought to strike men and women equally. Although experts argue that fitness does not play a role in it, I have found that the fitter I am, the better I acclimate to higher altitudes with less symptoms. High altitude is considered 8,000 feet and above, however, when coming from sea level, I have experienced it at as low as 5,000 feet.

A colleague of mine, Dr. Todd Dorfman, who works in the ER at Boulder Community Hospital, says that people coming from sea level start to compensate for the lack of oxygen by increasing their heart and respiratory rate immediately upon arriving at any increased altitude. True altitude sickness (HAI) usually does not occur until a minimum of 8,000 feet in healthy individuals, but underlying medical problems can make compensation more difficult at any altitude and increase the risk of HAI at lower altitudes.

Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

The symptoms of altitude sickness generally develop within a day of reaching high altitude. Symptoms will vary depending on the severity of your condition. Those experiencing a mild case may have:

  • Loss of Appetite
  • Nausea, Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Muscle Aches
  • Insomnia
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Rapid Heart Beat 2

Symptoms of more severe altitude sickness often include:

  • Coughing
  • Chest Congestion
  • Pale Complexion
  • Lack of Balance

Remember, altitude sickness can become serious, so if you feel very ill at high altitudes, see a doctor even if it means making a trip to the emergency room.

When we bought a second home in Vail, Colorado and began spending weekends there on a regular basis, HAI was something I became well acquainted with. Fortunately, I developed a number of strategies, and I no longer suffer from it.

In Health Tips for Altitude Sickness, I share my secrets for surviving and thriving at high altitude, and I offer you amazing ways to combat this annoyingly unpleasant condition!


61 responses to “What is Altitude Sickness?”

  1. The first time we went to Park City, Utah, to ski, my husband and I got altitude sickness bad. It nearly ruined our trip. The next time, someone told us to super hydrate. We stocked up on Gatorade/Hydrate Vitamin Water and plain water, and just drank and drank. No sickness at all.

  2. Have you heard of Altigen? It’s a Chinese herb formula that really helps prevent altitude sickness. I’ve used it a few times so far and it has totally worked! (I do not get paid by them to say this. I’m an acupuncturist and am thrilled that a formula like this exists.)

  3. Thanks for this information. I just returned home from Beaver Creek CO where I experienced altitude sickness for the first 2 days. We are frequent visitors to high altitudes and I am curious if you would know why I sometimes experience it and sometimes do not. I am anxious to read your strategies for managing it. I just drank a ton of water and took extra vitamin C b/c is was all I had to help me:)

  4. Cliffhanger! Looking forward to this post. I’m fine in Boulder but suffer with every mountain trip. I can manage through for about 3 days but then have to come back.

  5. We summer in Taos, NM, and every year, without fail, I get sick. I try to remember to take my chlorophyll and drink a lot of water…

  6. I lived for a few years in a city (Caracas) that is surrounded by high altitude mountains. We would on some weekends walk up the trail to el Avilas top ,and in the middle just could not go on,shortness of breath ,chest congestion and rapid heart beat.I don’t know if that was because of high altitude or the fact that a few years later I was diagnosed with light asthma.

  7. My husband experienced severe altitude sickness on a trip to Crested Butte. He is a Colorado native and has enjoyed mountain activities all his life. The attack was enough to send him searching for answers, as he continued to experience symptoms for the remainder of that winter’s ski season everytime we went up into the altitude. (We live at 6000 feet which does not bother him). By May of that year his was diagnosed with MS and to this day can not tolerate the high altitudes. He is still physically able to ski and we have a daughter learning to ski so as a family I would love for him to be able to enjoy the mountains again. I am looking forward to learning your strategies for managing altitude sickness and hopefully they will work for my husband as well.
    Thank you for sharing.

  8. We stayed a week in Breckenridge this last Fall, and our cabin was at 10,500ft. The first 2 days were horrid! We upped our water intake, and purchased some portable oxygen canisters. The symptoms lessened, but never went away until we were at lower levels. We want to go back, but want to know if there is anything we can do to prepare for lesser effects!!

  9. I have to take Dramamine the day I’m going up to the mountains and every day I’m there, plus drink loads of water. I’m curious about other ideas. I dearly love the mountains but my altitude sickness is very severe and includes dizziness and loss of vision. I’ve never blacked out but I’ve come very close.

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