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Mountain Sickness (cont.)

What are the causes of altitude sickness?

Patient Comments

Altitude sickness develops when the rate of ascent into higher altitudes outpaces the body's ability to adjust to those altitudes due to the decreasing levels of oxygen in the air as altitude increases. This results in abnormally low blood levels of oxygen.

Altitude sickness generally develops at elevations higher than 8,000 feet (about 2,400 meters) above sea level and when the rate of ascent exceeds 1,000 feet (300 meters) per day.

The following actions can trigger altitude sickness:

  • Ascending too rapidly (not allowing enough time for the body to compensate for decreased oxygen in the air)
  • Overexertion within 24 hours of ascent
  • Inadequate fluid intake
  • Hypothermia
  • Consumption of alcohol o or other sedatives

It is possible, depending on the person's health, that an individual can rapidly go through symptoms of acute mountain sickness and then progress to high-altitude pulmonary edema or high-altitude cerebral edema at moderate to high altitudes.

What kind of doctor treats altitude sickness?

The initial treatment for altitude sickness is no further ascent in altitude. If symptoms do not resolve quickly, descend to a lower altitude. If the person develops any signs and symptoms of high-altitude cerebral edema or high-altitude pulmonary edema, they should descend to lower altitude and be seen by emergency medicine physician. Other physicians that may be involved in the care of the patient may be a hyperbaric-trained physician, neurologist, and/or pulmonary or critical care specialist, depending on the severity of symptoms.

When should a person seek medical care for altitude sickness?

If symptoms such as headache or shortness of breath do not improve promptly with simple changes, visiting a doctor may be helpful if descending to a lower altitude is inconvenient and a doctor is available.

Descend immediately if shortness of breath at rest, mental confusion or lethargy, or loss of muscle coordination develop. Symptoms of most people with acute altitude sickness improve by the time they reach a medical facility, which is usually located at a lower altitude.

How is altitude sickness diagnosed?

The diagnosis of acute altitude sickness is based on the patient's signs and symptoms. After traveling to a high altitude, symptoms of loss of appetite, generalized weakness, dizziness, shortness of breath during exertion, nausea, or a headache associated with insomnia may indicate altitude sickness.

  • The doctor may hear crackles or rales (a rattling sound) when listening to the patient's lungs.
  • Shortness of breath at rest may indicate high-altitude pulmonary edema.
  • The pateint's vital signs may be abnormal and may include low-grade fever and faster-than-normal heart and breathing rates.
  • Pulse oximetry, which measures oxygen saturation of the blood, may reveal that the patient's oxygen saturation is lower than expected for that particular altitude.
  • The doctor may treat the patient with fever and cough for pneumonia in addition to high-altitude pulmonary edema.
  • High-altitude cerebral edema is diagnosed if a person's mental state is altered or coordination is lost at high altitude.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 12/15/2015

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