How can altitude sickness be prevented?

The best way to prevent altitude sickness is by acclimatization. This is a process that allows your body time to adapt to the change in oxygen concentration at a higher altitude. In general, this means climbing to a higher level at a slow pace.

Changes that occur in the body that help it acclimate to a higher elevation include:

  • Deeper breathing
  • Higher pressure in the lung arteries so more lung space is used to help breathe
  • Making more red blood cells to carry more oxygen to the body
  • Increasing the amount of oxygen released from the blood to the body tissues

Guidelines for proper acclimatization include:

  • If possible, start below 10,000 feet and walk to high altitude instead of driving or flying. If you must fly or drive to an altitude over 10,000 feet, stay at your first stop for 24 hours before going higher.
  • When hiking or climbing above 10,000 feet increase your altitude by no more than 1,000 feet a day and build a rest day into your schedule for every 3,000 feet gained. Remember, “Climb high and sleep low,” meaning if you climb more than 1,000 feet in a day, come down to sleep at a lower altitude.
  • Always move to a lower altitude if symptoms of altitude sickness develop.
  • Drink at least 3 to 4 quarts of water per day.
  • Avoid tobacco, alcohol and other depressant drugs, including barbiturates, tranquilizers and sleeping pills.
  • While at a high altitude, eat a diet that includes more than 70% carbohydrates.
  • Know the early signs and symptoms of altitude sickness and take action to prevent it from worsening.

Climbing experts recommend taking along enough tanks of oxygen to last for several days when traveling above 10,000 feet. Individuals at risk for developing low levels of oxygen in the blood (anemia) should ask their doctor about taking an iron supplement to help maintain blood oxygen levels.

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


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