Font Size

Mountain Sickness (cont.)

Altitude Sickness Treatment

Descending to lower altitudes or delaying further ascent are treatments for acute altitude sickness until symptoms are gone.

  • A Gamow bag may be used if descent is not feasible.
  • Oxygen (2-4 liters per minute) will improve oxygen saturation of blood.
  • Aspirin or acetaminophen (Tylenol) may be taken for headache.
  • For nausea, the doctor may prescribe prochlorperazine (Compazine), an antinausea medication that also enhances the body's ability to increase the breathing rate in response to low-oxygen environments.
  • Sleeping pills for insomnia should not be taken. They are potentially dangerous because they can slow breathing.
  • Acetazolamide (Diamox) may be prescribed to hasten acclimatization.
    • Acetazolamide is a diuretic (a drug that increases urine output) that increases kidney excretion of bicarbonate. This decreases the blood pH, thereby stimulating extra breathing, which results in higher oxygen levels in the blood.
    • In addition, acetazolamide corrects nighttime pauses in breathing known as periodic breathing. Acetazolamide also improves symptoms of insomnia.
    • This medication may also be utilized in a preventative manner in people with a prior history of altitude sickness.

HAPE responds best to descent.

  • Oxygen, if available, should be provided.
  • Nifedipine (Procardia), a medication for high blood pressure, has been shown to be beneficial for HAPE.
  • Antibiotics may be given if a fever is present and pneumonia is possible.
  • For more severe cases of HAPE, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) mask ventilation can be used. Although uncomfortable to wear, the CPAP mask helps by increasing the pressure of the inhaled air.
  • If this intervention fails, a tube may be placed through the mouth and into the airway. This, along with assisted ventilation, is required to treat respiratory failure.

The only definitive treatment for HACE is descent.

  • Dexamethasone (Decadron, a steroid) may be beneficial.
    • Generally, if dexamethasone is considered, then a plan for descent should be in place unless descent is impossible.
    • Some people, after receiving dexamethasone, may feel so much better that they want to continue ascending. Under no circumstance should this be allowed.
  • Oxygen may be helpful.
  • A Gamow bag may buy time until descent is possible.

Anyone with HACE or HAPE should be kept as comfortable as possible.

  • Exertion of any type should be minimized, even during descent.
  • This means that it may be necessary to arrange descent for the ill person by whatever means available (helicopter, snowmobile, or mule, for example).
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/10/2014
Medical Author:

Must Read Articles Related to Mountain Sickness

Foreign Travel
Foreign Travel It is important to plan well in advance when traveling to a foreign country. Travelers should protect (and prepare) themselves from illness by obtaining the app...learn more >>
Pulmonary Edema
Pulmonary Edema Pulmonary edema is a collection of excess fluid in the lungs. Pulmonary edema is classified as either cardiogenic (caused by heart problems) and non-cardiogenic...learn more >>

Patient Comments & Reviews

The eMedicineHealth doctors ask about Altitude Sickness (Mountain Sickness):

Altitude Sickness - Patient Experience

Please describe your experience with altitude sickness.

Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

Altitude-Related Disorders »

Mountains have fascinated and attracted humankind for millennia.

Read More on Medscape Reference »

Medical Dictionary