Altitude sickness

To stay safe at altitude, you must be aware of altitude sickness. Wondering if there are meds for altitude sickness, and what the symptoms are? Read on.

You’ll spend time above 2,400m if you climb Kilimanjaro or trek to Everest Base Camp. Other high-altitude destinations include Bogota, Columbia, Quito, Ecuador, Lhasa, Tibet, and La Paz, Bolivia.

What exactly is altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness is also known as:

  • altitude illness
  • high-altitude sickness
  • acute mountain sickness

The pressure is lower at altitude than at sea level, making it more difficult for your body to absorb oxygen from the air. The body needs three to five days to adapt, or acclimate, to a change of altitude.

Acute mountain sickness symptoms appear within the first 36 hours of arrival and may feel similar to a hangover:

  • appetite loss
  • breathlessness
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • nausea or vomiting
  • sleep disturbance

The NHS Fit for Travel website has some information about altitude sickness.

How can I avoid mountain sickness?

You will be susceptible to acute mountain sickness if you do not acclimate. Flying directly into a location above 2,400 metres puts you at risk of altitude sickness.

You can reduce your risk of mountain sickness by acclimatising your body to altitude. You should ascend slowly (300m per day) with a rest day every three to four days. You can also help avoid altitude sickness by eating a high-calorie diet, and staying hydrated with safe drinking water.

Acetazolamide (Diamox) is a med for altitude sickness that some people find to be effective. It can be used to prevent or treat mountain sickness. Ask your travel health adviser or pharmacist for advice on the best way to take meds for altitude sickness. You’ll need a prescription to get Diamox for high-altitude sickness.

Is altitude sickness harmful?

If you continue to ascend when ill with acute mountain sickness, it can make you seriously ill. High altitude cerebral oedema (HACE), which affects the brain, and high-altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPE), which affects the lungs, can both be fatal. At altitude, symptoms such as confusion, unsteadiness, and restless breathlessness should be treated as medical emergencies. A person with suspected HACE or HAPE may not be thinking clearly and should be transported to a lower altitude as soon as possible.

I believe I am suffering from altitude sickness

Do not disregard AMS symptoms. Mild altitude sickness will subside if you descend or acclimate at the same elevation. Don’t go any higher. Tell your travel companions how you’re feeling. Rest, take pain relievers for the headache, and stay hydrated. If your symptoms do not improve after a day, drop 500-1,000 metres. If you do not improve after this, seek medical attention.

Other considerations before travelling to a high altitude

Will altitude have an impact on your medical condition?

If you have a chronic condition, such as diabetes, sickle cell disease, or asthma, consult with your regular healthcare provider about your travel plans. They can advise on the potential effects of altitude on your existing condition.

Are you covered by travel insurance at altitude?

At altitude, medical evacuation can be extremely difficult and costly. Before venturing into the mountains, double-check your insurance coverage.

Altitude and sunburn

You will be more exposed to UV radiation at high altitude. We recommend taking extra precautions to avoid sunburn. Apply a high-quality sunscreen that protects against UVA, UVB, and UVC rays. Apply sunscreen to your lips, ears, and nose, and wear wrap-around sunglasses to protect your eyes.

Where can I get a travel health appointment for my high-altitude trip?

Make an appointment with NX Healthcare Travel Clinics six to eight weeks before your departure. A dedicated travel health adviser can help you to understand the health risks you may experience, including altitude, and take steps to reduce your risk.

More Travel Advice & News