Acute mountain sickness is an illness that can affect mountain climbers, hikers, skiers, or travelers at high altitude (typically above 8,000 feet or 2,400 meters).
Acute mountain sickness is due to a combination of reduced air pressure and lower oxygen levels at high altitudes.
The faster you climb to a high altitude, the more likely you will get acute mountain sickness. Your symptoms will also depend on the speed of your climb and how hard you push (exert) yourself.
You are at higher risk for acute mountain sickness if:
Symptoms range from mild to life-threatening, and can affect the nervous system, lungs, muscles, and heart.
In most cases, the symptoms are mild. Symptoms generally associated with mild to moderate acute mountain sickness include:
Symptoms generally associated with more severe acute mountain sickness include:
Listening to the chest with a stethoscope (auscultation) reveals sounds called crackles (rales) in the lung, which may be a sign of fluid in the lungs.
A chest x-ray may be performed.
Early diagnosis is important. Acute mountain sickness is easier to treat in the early stages.
The main treatment for all forms of mountain sickness is to climb down (descend) to a lower altitude as rapidly and safely as possible. You should not continue climbing if you develop symptoms.
Extra oxygen should be given, if available.
People with severe mountain sickness may need to be admitted to a hospital.
Acetazolamide (Diamox) may be given to help improve breathing and reduce mild symptoms. This drug can cause increased urination. Make sure you drink plenty of fluids and avoid alcohol when taking this drug.
If you have fluid in your lungs (pulmonary edema), treatment may include:
Dexamethasone (Decadron) may help reduce swelling in the brain (cerebral edema).
Portable hyperbaric chambers allow hikers to simulate conditions at lower altitudes without actually moving from their location on the mountain. These devices are very helpful if bad weather or other factors make climbing down the mountain impossible.
Most cases are mild, and symptoms improve promptly when you climb down the mountain to a lower altitude.
Severe cases may result in death due to lung problems or brain swelling.
In remote locations, emergency evacuation may not be possible, or treatment may be delayed. This can have a negative affect on your outcome.
Call your health care provider if you have or had symptoms of acute mountain sickness, even if you felt better when you returned to a lower altitude.
Call 911 or your local emergency number if you or another climber have any of the following symptoms:
Climb down the mountain immediately and as safely as possible.
Keys to preventing acute mountain sickness include:
If you are traveling above 9,840 feet (3,000 meters), you should carry enough oxygen for several days.
If you plan on quickly climbing to a high altitude, ask your doctor about a medication called acetazolamide (Diamox). This drug helps your body get used to higher altitudes more quickly, and reduces minor symptoms. It should be taken the day before you climb, and then for the next 1 to 2 days.
If you are at risk for anemia, ask your doctor if an iron supplement is right for you. Anemia lowers the amount of oxygen in your blood.
You should avoid high altitudes if you have heart or lung disease.
High altitude cerebral edema; Altitude anoxia; Altitude sickness; Mountain sickness; High altitude pulmonary edema
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Yaron M, Honigman B. High-altitude medicine. In: Marx, JA, ed. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa : Mosby Elsevier; 2006: chap 142.
Reviewed by: Jacob L. Heller, MD, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington, Clinic. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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