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Mountain sickness in Wikipedia

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This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Altitude sickness". (Source - Retrieved 2006-09-07 14:17:53 from


Altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS) or altitude illness is a pathological condition that is caused by acute exposure to high altitudes. It commonly occurs above 2,500 metres (approximately 8,000 feet). Acute mountain sickness can progress to high altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPE) or high altitude cerebral oedema (HACE), ultimately resulting in death.

Another, rarer, type of altitude sickness caused by prolonged exposure to high altitude is chronic mountain sickness, also known as Monge's disease.


Different people have different susceptibilities to altitude sickness. For some otherwise healthy people symptoms can begin to appear at around 1,500 meters (5,000 feet) above sea level. This is the altitude of Mexico City (2,240m/7,349ft.) and Denver, Colorado (1,609m/5,280ft). Diets high in carbohydrates may make people suffering from AMS feel better. Carbohydrates require less oxygen to metabolise than fats, but the volumes involved are not large and the mechanism may not be so direct. High altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and cerebral edema HACE are the most ominous of these symptoms, while acute mountain sickness, retinal hemorrhages, and peripheral edema are the milder forms of the disease. The rate of ascent, the altitude attained, the amount of physical activity at high altitude, and individual susceptibility are contributing factors to the incidence and severity of high-altitude illness.

Altitude sickness usually occurs following a rapid ascent, and can usually be prevented by ascending slowly $[1]$. In most of these cases, the symptoms are only temporary and usually abate with time as altitude acclimatisation occurs.

Signs and symptoms

Headache is a primary symptom used to diagnose altitude sickness. A headache occurring at an altitude above 8000 feet (2,400 metres), combined with any one of the following symptoms, indicates probable altitude sickness.

The early symptoms of altitude sickness include drowsiness, general malaise, and weakness, especially during physical exertion. More severe symptoms are headache, insomnia, persistent rapid pulse, nausea and sometimes vomiting, especially in children. Extreme symptoms include confusion, psychosis, hallucination, symptoms resulting from pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) such as persistent coughing, and finally seizures, coma and death.

Severe cases

The most serious symptoms of altitude sickness are due to edema (fluid accumulation in the tissues of the body). At very high altitude, humans can get either high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), or high altitude cerebral edema (HACE). These syndromes are potentially fatal. The physiological cause of altitude-induced edema is not conclusively established. For those suffering HACE, dexamethasone may provide temporary relief from symptoms in order to keep descending under their own power.

HAPE occurs in ~2% of those who are adjusting to altitudes of ~3000 m (10,000 feet) or more. It can progress rapidly and is often fatal. Symptoms include fatigue, severe dyspnea at rest, and cough that is initially dry but may progress to produce pink, frothy sputum. Descent to lower altitudes alleviates the symptoms of HAPE.

HACE is a life threatening condition that can lead to coma or death. It occurs in about 1% of people adjusting to altitudes above ~2700 m (9,000 feet). Symptoms include headache, fatigue, visual impairment, bladder dysfunction, bowel dysfunction, loss of coordination, paralysis on one side of the body, and confusion. Descent to lower altitudes may save those afflicted with HACE.

Altitude acclimatisation

Altitude acclimatisation is the process of adjusting to decreasing oxygen levels at higher elevations, in order to avoid altitude sickness. Once above approximately 3,000 metres (10,000 feet), most climbers and high altitude trekkers follow the "golden rule" - climb high, sleep low. For high altitude climbers, a typical acclimatisation regime might be to stay a few days at a base camp, climb up to a higher camp (slowly), then return to base camp. A subsequent climb to the higher camp would then include an overnight stay. This process is then repeated a few times, each time extending the time spent at higher altitudes to let the body "get used" to the oxygen level there, a process that involves the production of additional red blood cells. Once the climber has acclimatised to a given altitude, the process is repeated with camps placed at progressively higher elevations. The general rule of thumb is to not ascend more than 300 metres (1,000 feet) per day to sleep. That is, one can climb from 3,000 (10,000 feet) to 4,500 metres (15,000 feet) in one day, but one should then descend back to 3,300 metres (11,000 feet) to sleep. This process cannot safely be rushed, and this explains why climbers need to spend days (or even weeks at times) acclimatising before attempting to climb a high peak. Simulated altitude equipment that produce hypoxic (reduced oxygen) air can be used to acclimate to altitude, reducing the total time required on the mountain itself.

Acetazolamide may help some people in speeding up the acclimatisation process and can treat mild cases of altitude sickness. For centuries, indigenous cultures of the Altiplano, such as the Aymaras, have used coca leaves to treat mild altitude sickness. Drinking plenty of water will also help in acclimatisation to replace the fluids lost through heavier breathing in the thin, dry air found at altitude. Patients can sometimes control mild altitude sickness by consciously taking ten to twelve large, rapid breaths every five minutes. If overdone, this can blow off too much carbon dioxide and cause tingling in the extremities of the body. Other treatments include injectable steroids to reduce pulmonary edema, and inflatable pressure vessels to relieve and evacuate severe mountain-sick persons.

The only real cure once symptoms appear is for the sufferer to move to a lower altitude as quickly as possible. For serious cases of AMS, a Gamow bag can be used to reduce the effective altitude by as much at 1,500 meters (5,000 feet). A Gamow bag is a portable plastic pressure bag inflated with a foot pump.

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