Altitude sickness

Information about the sickness, symptoms, available online treatment

Altitude sickness is a condition which can affect anyone who goes to areas of high altitude, as this causes a change in the conditions surrounding us. This cannot be experienced in the UK, as the highest mountain does not reach the levels necessary to cause such a disturbance to the body. However, many people who go on skiing, hiking or trekking holidays abroad will need to prepare for the possibility of suffering from altitude sickness.

What is altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness occurs at a height of at least 2,500 metres above sea level and is particularly common in people who are not used to the altitude or are increasing in height at a high speed. This is because the body does not have time to adjust to the conditions at each altitude. At its mildest, the symptoms are unpleasant, such as nausea, dizziness, headaches or breathing difficulties. However, if it is not treated appropriately it can lead to more serious problems including hospitalisation or even death.

What are the symptoms?

When climbing up a high mountain, the initial symptoms will be mild, including headaches, nausea, dizziness or the feeling of being unable to breathe deeply enough. If these symptoms are not treated appropriately, they can worsen, causing vomiting, lack of coordination and more intense headaches. If you suffer from worse symptoms you should descend immediately as severe altitude sickness can lead to complications such as pulmonary or cerebral oedemas.

How will I know if I am at risk?

You cannot be at risk of altitude sickness in the UK as the highest mountain measures just 1,344 metres. However, anyone planning a trip abroad to areas of altitudes higher than 2,500 metres should know that they are at risk from suffering from altitude sickness. There is medication available to people who are at risk and you should never travel alone or increase in height too quickly because the body needs time to acclimatise to the conditions at high altitudes.

Can altitude sickness be prevented?

You should try to prevent altitude sickness as much as possible as it is not only unpleasant but can also lead to complications which can occasionally result in death. You can prevent altitude sickness by taking medications such as Diamox, which is effective when taken before the ascent and it works by helping to normalise the lung function which can be compromised in high altitudes.

You can also prevent altitude sickness by making sure you allow the body to acclimatise to each new altitude, which is why it is important to climb slowly and make sure to stop if you start to feel any of the symptoms associated with the condition.