How is altitude sickness treated?

It is very important to know the symptoms of altitude sickness so that treatment can be started early while the illness is still mild.

For all stages of altitude sickness, the main treatment is to go down to a lower altitude as quickly and safely as possible. For mild altitude sickness, over-the-counter medicines should relieve headache. Other symptoms will go away quickly at a lower altitude.

Symptoms of moderate altitude sickness usually improve in 24 hours at an elevation that is at least 1,000 to 2,000 feet lower. Symptoms should go away completely within 3 days.

People who have severe altitude sickness must be taken to a lower elevation (no higher than 4,000 feet) immediately. They must be seen by a doctor as soon as possible. Hospital care may be needed.

Fluid in the brain (cerebral edema) may be treated with dexamethasone, a steroid that can help reduce swelling in the brain.

Treatment for fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema) may include:

  • Additional oxygen
  • Medicines
  • A lung inhaler
  • A respirator (for the most severe cases)

Some highly skilled climbers and hikers may carry a portable oxygen chamber, also called a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, with them as part of their standard high-altitude gear. The “chamber” is a body bag that is pumped full of air. Inflating the bag increases the oxygen concentration allowing the person in the bag with altitude sickness to breathe in more oxygen.

Medicines. Acetazolamide is a prescription drug that increases a person’s breathing rate so that more oxygen is taken in. It helps the body adjust to higher altitudes more quickly and reduces minor symptoms of altitude sickness. Dexamethasone is also a prescription drug that is sometimes used to prevent altitude sickness.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/03/2017.

References

  • Carod-Artal FJ. High-altitude headache and acute mountain sickness. Neurologia. 2012 Jun 13.
  • Princeton University. Outdoor Action Guide to High Altitude Accessed 3/6/2017.
  • American Migraine Foundation. Acute Mountain Sickness, and Headache Accessed 3/6/2017.
  • Jean D, Moore LG. Travel to High Altitude during Pregnancy: Frequently Asked Questions and Recommendations for Clinicians. High Alt Med Biol.2012 Jun;13(2):73-81.

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