How To Avoid Altitude Sickness: The Ultimate Guide

How To Avoid Altitude Sickness

Intro: How To Avoid Altitude Sickness

Climbing a mountain? Traveling in a plane? Saddling up to the top of the ski slope? When people think about altitude sickness, they tend to picture the Andes, or the Himalayas---but there's so many situations and places where you could be effected by high altitude.

If you're planning a trip, you're going to want to make sure that you know how to avoid altitude sickness. Altitude sickness is a real thing and it can really put a kink in your trip if you're not careful. As your ultimate guide, this article is going to discuss everything that you need to know about how to avoid altitude sickness and everything else in between to understand what altitude sickness is.

what causes altitude sickness
What Causes Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness occurs when your body isn't able to adjust to lower levels of oxygen at higher elevations. This happens because the air is thinner as you go higher up — there's less air for your body to breathe in and out. This causes a noticeable change in air pressure, which prevents enough oxygen from entering the bloodstream. That makes it hard for the body's organs to work properly and causes symptoms of altitude sickness.

Altitude sickness is most common at elevations above 8500 feet, but it can occur as low as 5000 feet in those with little to no exposure to high altitudes. In our backyard of Denver Colorado at 5000 feet high, many visitors experience mild altitude symptoms on their trip.

Travelers often can experience various forms of altitude sickness from minor and mild to severe. The degree to how altitude sickness affects someone depends on a range of factors including a person's rate of ascent, home elevation, overall physical health, age, gender, their body's susceptibility to altitude sickness, and priori experience at high altitudes. 

Altitude sickness can be a serious risk for travelers, as well as for individuals who live at higher elevations. The World Health Organization It is estimated by the World Health Organization that about 40 million tourists every year climb to high (8202 - 17388 feet) and very high altitudes (17388 - 29035 feet). And anywhere between 25% to 85% of those travelers can be effected by altitude sickness.

Common Symptoms Of Altitude Sickness
Common Symptoms Of Altitude Sickness

The symptoms of altitude sickness can vary widely, but in general, they will be more severe the higher you climb. Altitude sickness is caused by a lack of oxygen at high altitude. As your body absorbs less oxygen the higher you go, these symptoms will increase. Altitude sickness usually develops 6 to 24 hours after arriving at a high altitude, but it can occur earlier or later.

The most common symptoms of altitude sickness include: 

  • Headache
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Sleeplessness or sleep disturbance
  • Muscle pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sleeplessness
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Loss of coordination

Types Of Altitude Sickness

The three types of altitude sickness are acute mountain sickness (AMS), high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). HACE and HAPE are much more serious than AMS. AMS usually goes away when you return to a lower altitude or after your body has adjusted to the altitude. HACE and HAPE need immediate medical attention.

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is the body's response to high altitudes. AMS occurs because your body isn't getting enough oxygen and you're breathing too much of the lower-oxygen air found at high elevations. The lower oxygen content of the air has many effects, including: dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, vomiting, stomach discomfort (nausea), insomnia, loss of appetite, headache. For most people, AMS is uncomfortable, but is typically not life-threatening. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) most often occurs when going from sea level to altitudes above 50000 and 8000 feet (2,400 meters), or higher.

High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE)

High-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) is a life-threatening condition in which fluid leaks out of capillaries in the brain. HACE is one of the most serious altitude-related conditions and is caused by swelling of brain tissue from fluid leakage and can lead to coma and death.

Although the condition is rare and occurs in less than 1 percent of people who ascend too quickly, if HACE is left untreated, it can be fatal. Treatment for HACE involves immediate descent and medical care immediately. Your doctor may give you oxygen therapy, drugs to reduce swelling, and intravenous fluids. 

High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE)

HAPE is the other life-threatening form of high-altitude illness that occurs when the lungs' small air sacs (alveoli) fill with fluid. This interferes with oxygen exchange, and is one of the most severe forms of high-altitude illness.

High-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) HAPE is much more dangerous than AMS. HAPE may also cause coughing and a sensation of tightness in the chest. The cough from HAPE often sounds like "whistling pectoris" due to the extra pressure in the lungs from fluid buildup. It can be fatal if not treated immediately. 

avoiding altitude sickness at mountains and vacation destinations
Mountains and Destinations With Risk of Altitude Sickness

Whether Mt Everest at 29,000 feet or Aspen at exactly 8,000 feet, altitude sickness is a real thing in a large range of elevations. Both people on vacation destinations, ski trips, or those on an extreme high altitude climbs can be effected. A few of the countries and states to prepare for altitude sickness are: Argentina, China, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tibet, Nepal, Tanzania, Peru, Italy, Switzerland, Canada, Chile, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Alaska, Colorado, California, Washington, New Mexico, Oregon

These are just a few of the top destinations for vacationing or climbing with high altitudes:

  • Vail, Colorado (8150 feet)
  • Breckenridge, Colorado (9600 feet)
  • Aspen, Colorado (8000 feet)
  • Keystone, Colorado (10804 feet)
  • Winter Park, Colorado (9121 feet)
  • Mount Whitney, California (14505 feet)
  • Swiss Alps, Switzerland (13000+ feet)
  • La Paz, Bolivia (11,942 feet)
  • Machu Picchu, Peru (7,972 feet)
  • Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania (19341 feet)
  • Grand Teton, Wyoming (13775 feet)
  • Tilcara, Argentina (8,087 feet)
  • Shangri-La , China (10,367 feet)
  • Santa Fé, New Mexico (7,199 feet)
  • Annapurna Base Camp, Nepal (13,550 feet)
  • Mount Kenya, Africa (17,057 feet)
  • The Dolomites, Italy (10,968 feet)
  • Mount Rainier, Washington (14,417 feet)
  • Pikes Peak, Colorado (14,115 feet)

Diagnosis and Treatment of Altitude Sickness

Diagnosis of altitude sickness relies on symptoms and the history of the climb. If caught early enough, rest at lower altitude can help prevent altitude sickness or alleviate symptoms and stop them from increasing in severity. Treatment for this specific condition should not be taken lightly as it can quickly become life-threatening if not treated properly. Effects of this condition range in severity but if left untreated can lead to permanent damage or death. In order to treat correctly with medication and/or oxygen therapy, a diagnosis must first be made. Therefore, medical professionals use several different diagnostic tools to determine the level of severity of Altitude Sickness (AMS).

If symptoms become worse or you have any reason to suspect that you might have HAPE or HACE (see "Signs and Symptoms" below), descend immediately and seek medical attention.

Ways to Avoid Altitude Sickness
7 Ways to Prevent Altitude Sickness

There's several natural things you can do to avoid altitude sickness by being properly prepared.

1. Take It Easy
Exercise lightly or not at all during initial adjustment period. Exercise or physical activities will cause fatigue and may make it easier to get altitude sickness if you're not used to the elevation change.  Avoid overexertion at high elevation in order to allow your body to adjust gradually to the decrease in oxygen levels; regular rest days are a must!

Altitude sickness usually takes 24 hours to set in, so after a day or two you can increase your activity levels. If you start feeling bad early on in your trip such as headache or nausea back off a little bit  and stop doing all activities or any exercise (hiking, climbing, skiing, etc.) to give yourself some time to recover until you feel better. 

Know your limits during the duration of the trip — any time you feel dizzy or disoriented  stop and take a break.

2. Slow Acclimatization
Don't go too high too fast. If you are planning to climb a mountain or travel to a high-altitude location, give yourself time to adjust to the elevation in phases. Give your body the time it needs to acclimatize before going higher into the mountains.

If possible, try spending the first night at a lower elevation so that your body has time to adjust before going higher. For example, when traveling to the Colorado Rocky Mountains, visitors often fly in and stay their first night in Denver. Then the second or third day they travel to their mountain destination such as Vail, Breckenridge or Aspen. 

3. Eat a well-balanced diet
Eat light meals that are high in carbohydrates. High carbohydrate snacks such as fruit, dried fruit, crackers or granola bars are good for maintaining energy levels and preventing fatigue during periods of strenuous activity. You can also eat meals at regular intervals in order to sustain energy levels and prevent hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). 

To help prevent altitude sickness, you need to replenish the oxygen in your blood by increasing the amount of hemoglobin in red blood cells. This can be done by taking eating foods rich in iron like leafy greens, beans, eggs and meats. 

Eat fruits and vegetables also whenever possible. Fruits and vegetables are good sources of essential vitamins and minerals, which is especially important when adjusting to low oxygen levels at high altitude. Foods containing vitamin C are also helpful because they promote iron absorption.

4. Avoid drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco
Take it easy on the alcohol while at high altitudes because alcohol increases dehydration — which is a common cause of altitude sickness — and slows down the acclimatization process. You will put the body to harder work trying to detoxify the alcohol and potentially losing antioxidants levels in the body like glutathione. Alcohol also causes drowsiness and negatively effects sleeping cycles which makes it harder to acclimate.

Avoid tobacco products because they can also make you more susceptible to altitude sickness. Cigarettes will make it harder for your body to adjust to the low oxygen levels at high altitudes.

5. Prioritize Hydration
Drink lots of water. Altitude sickness is caused by a lack of oxygen, so your body needs more water to absorb the oxygen it requires. Even mild dehydration can make altitude sickness worse. If you're thirsty, drink fluids — water is best.

Some experts say half your body weight in ounces is a good goal, while others suggest staying away from any caffeinated beverages altogether before traveling because they dehydrate you. Adding electrolytes or sea salt (loaded with electrolytes) to your diet or drink can help replace the magnesium and sodium often lost in sweat and allow you body to hydrate better.

6. Sleep Lower Elevations
Sleep in a lower elevation area for a few nights before traveling to a higher altitude area; then spend only one day acclimating in the higher location before returning home or continuing on with travel plans, if possible

Similar to slow acclimatization, this should be especially applied if doing a very high altitude mountain ascent. After a climbing or skiing, descend and sleep in a lower elevation area. The next day you can ascend back to higher heights. Repeat that process over the course of your high altitude trip.

7. Supplements for Altitude Sickness
One of the best way to avoid altitude sickness is to take altitude sickness pills or supplements before and while you travel that will help your body adjust more quickly to the change in elevation. 

An effective ingredient for altitude sickness pills is supplementing glutamine, which strengthens the immune system and helps prevent altitude sickness. In a study, glutamine was shown to reduce cognition worsening caused by inflammation brought by high altitude hypoxia (low oxygen levels). Glutamine is considered an essential amino acid which also increases energy levels, improves endurance and reduces stress levels. 

High altitude studies have shown that oxidative stress increases following high altitude exposure. In one particular study, significant glutathione declines were observed between 43% and 45% in the blood and muscles. Therefore, altitude effects the antioxidant efficiencies in the body, lowering glutathione levels and increasing damage to the cells via free radical damage.

Taking glutathione before going up in altitude may help prevent altitude sickness. Research has shown that supplementing antioxidant vitamins, such as glutathione, can attenuate AMS and improve the physiological profile and performance of someone at high altitudes. Glutathione also helps recycle other antioxidants such as Vitamin C and Vitamin E, allowing them to be re-used to fight oxidative stress and many other of their other benefits.

Glutathione supplements should be taken before, while and after traveling to high altitudes. Glutathione is considered the body's master antioxidant that not only fights free radicals, it strengthens the immune system, supports respiratory health, and detoxification in the body.


best altitude sickness pills
Best Choice for Altitude Sickness

Our recovery chewables called Zaca are sold in stores throughout the Colorado Rocky Mountains for high altitude recovery. Zaca helps your body hydrate, replenish and recover better at high altitudes. The formula also includes glutamine and glutathione, two key ingredients as shown in studies to help with altitude. Try our sugar-free Recovery Chewables today!




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13. List of the highest major summits of the United States
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