If you are planning a vacation, business trip or a mountain climb at a high altitude destination, that might likely encounter not-so-great altitude sickness symptoms. Here is a quick overview of the high altitude headache as well as how to avoid them (bonus: high altitude headache remedies included).
Millions of visitors and even residents of high altitude locations and destinations get headaches every year. Nearly 1 in 4 people will develop altitude sickness, and headaches is one of the most common symptoms of acute exposure to high altitude. It often occurs at 8,000 feet or higher, but can happen as low as 3,000 feet.
Headaches that occur at high altitudes are caused by hypoxia, or lack of oxygen. At high altitudes, there is less air pressure which reduces the amount of oxygen that can be dissolved into the bloodstream. Hypoxia is when your body does not get enough oxygen for all your organs and tissues to function properly. Your heart, brain and other organs require adequate levels of oxygen in order to work properly.
High altitude headaches (HAH) usually begin within hours to days after arrival at high altitudes. Anyone can get high altitude headaches, but they are even more common in those who suffer from migraines or common headaches already. It's usually mild in severity, but it can be quite painful. Most people who experience headaches at high altitudes are going to have what's called an AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness or altitude sickness).
The hallmark of high altitude headache is the severe, throbbing pain. The pain is often described as a band-like pressure or tightness. While the headache is the most common of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and may be an isolated symptom, other common altitude sickness symptoms are:
If you have symptoms of high altitude headache (HAH) or any other medical problems while at altitude, be sure to inform your doctor or guide so they can make appropriate recommendations based on your specific circumstances and health history.
Common OTC drugs people take for high altitude headaches are acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol).
Treatment of HAH by a doctor is usually self-administered and involves taking high altitude headache medication like Diamox (Acetazolamide). According to the CDC, it helps by "acidifying the blood and reducing the respiratory alkalosis associated with high elevations, thus increasing respiration and arterial oxygenation and speeding acclimatization."
There are some preventative measures you can take if you know that you're going to be traveling to higher altitudes for an extended period of time. There's also high altitude headache remedies. Here's some ways and remedies to help prevent and avoid high altitude headaches:
You're much more likely to suffer from a high altitude headache if you don't drink enough water. That's because dehydration puts stress on your body, and stress can make headache symptoms worse. Drinking plenty of water and avoiding alcohol while at altitude will help keep dehydration at bay. TIP: Adding sea salt into your daily meals with help increase your body's electrolytes and assist your hydration.
Don't overexert yourself while staying at high altitude locations. The first one to two days after ascending to high altitudes you should rest as much as possible.
If you go from sea level to 8,000 feet at a fast pace, you'll increase your chance of experiencing high altitude headache. Slowing down and taking it easy will give your body more time to adjust to the change in elevation. Like in Colorado, many visitors will stay in Denver (5000 feet) for a night before proceeding to the mountains like Vail (8150 feet). This allows the body to acclimate to the lower oxygen levels.
High attitudes have less oxygen, so simply adding more oxygen to your body can help. Hit up the oxygen bar, or grab an oxygen bottle.
High altitudes can highly increase oxidative stress on the body and has also been shown to decrease glutathione in the body. The best way to fight it? Antioxidants! As a study suggests, "strengthening the antioxidant defense could be an effective strategy to prevent free-radical-mediated pathophysiological alterations and quicken acclimatization to oxidative stress." Supplementing antioxidants and glutathione is key.
Are you looking for an easy-to-use antioxidant supplement for high altitude? Loaded with glutathione, try our sugar-free Recovery Chewables!
1. High-Altitude Travel & Altitude Illness
2. Acclimatization to oxidative stress at high altitude
3. Altitude, Acute Mountain Sickness and Headache
4. What Is an Altitude Headache?
5. High-altitude headache
6. Clinical features of headache at altitude