Stephen J. Schueler, M.D.

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Altitude Sickness Overview

Another name for Altitude Sickness is High Altitude Illness.

What is a high altitude illness?
A person with high altitude illness has symptoms that occur after a rapidly ascending to an altitude over 7,500 feet. Worsening high altitude illness can lead to high altitude pulmonary edema or high altitude cerebral edema. About 12% of people develop symptoms of high altitude illness at an altitude of 9,000 feet.

What are the symptoms of a high altitude illness?
Symptoms depend on whether the brain or lungs are affected. Initial symptoms of high altitude illness include weakness, fatigue, headache, and nausea. Symptoms of worsening high altitude illness include vomiting, difficulty with balance, lethargy, confusion, and seizures. Initial symptoms of high altitude illness may include dry cough, nausea, headache, fever, weakness, fatigue, and mild difficulty breathing that worsens at night and with exertion. Symptoms of severe high altitude illness include a bloody cough, severe difficulty breathing, confusion, cyanosis, and coma.

How does the doctor treat a high altitude illness?
Treatment depends on how much the brain or the lungs are affected. High altitude cerebral edema and pulmonary edema are medical emergencies. Treatment for both requires immediate descent to a lower altitude. Additional measures include oxygen therapy and hyperbaric therapy.

Continue to Altitude Sickness Incidence

Last Updated: Feb 9, 2010 References
Authors: Stephen J. Schueler, MD; John H. Beckett, MD; D. Scott Gettings, MD
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PubMed Altitude Sickness References
  1. Basnyat B, Murdoch DR. High-altitude illness. Lancet. 2003 Jun 7;361(9373):1967-74. [12801752]
  2. Foster PP, Feiveson AH, Boriek AM. Predicting time to decompression illness during exercise at altitude, based on formation and growth of bubbles. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2000 Dec;279(6):R2317-28. [11080100]
  3. Gallagher SA, Hackett PH. High-altitude illness. Emerg Med Clin North Am. 2004 May;22(2):329-55, viii. Review. [15163571]
  4. Gertsch JH, Basnyat B, Johnson EW, Onopa J, Holck PS. Randomised, double blind, placebo controlled comparison of ginkgo biloba and acetazolamide for prevention of acute mountain sickness among Himalayan trekkers: the prevention of high altitude illness trial (PHAIT). BMJ. 2004 Apr 3;328(7443):797. [15070635]
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