How To Prevent Altitude Sickness – Symptoms, Causes + Diet Tips

Written by , MSc Shaheen Naser MSc Experience: 3 years
Last Updated on

If you are among those who hike mountains or climb high altitudes, you must be familiar with the term ‘altitude sickness.’ Around 20% of hikers, skiers, and adventurers who travel to high elevations (anywhere between 8,000 to 18,000 feet) experience altitude sickness. While you may not get relief from this issue overnight, certain natural remedies and diet tips can help increase your tolerance to higher altitudes. Scroll down to find out what they are.

What Is Altitude Sickness?

At high altitudes, your body may not get sufficient oxygen. This lack of oxygen causes altitude sickness. Generally, this condition manifests itself at altitudes of 8000 feet or higher. It is more prominent in individuals who are not accustomed to such heights.

Altitude sickness must not be taken lightly as it can turn out to be unpredictable and dangerous. Let us now look at the common signs and symptoms associated with this condition.

Signs And Symptoms Of High Altitude Sickness

The symptoms that accompany altitude sickness can occur either right away or take a while.

The primary symptoms of altitude sickness are:

  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent headaches
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • An increased heart rate
  • Shortness of breath

Some of the more severe symptoms include:

  • Discoloration of the skin (skin may become blue, gray, or paler)
  • Confusion and inability to think
  • Constant coughing
  • Coughing up blood
  • A tightness in the chest
  • Unconsciousness or decreased consciousness
  • Shortness of breath even at rest
  • Inability to walk in a straight line

There are three types of altitude sickness, depending on the degree of severity.

Types Of Altitude Sickness

  • Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)

This is the most common type of altitude sickness, and its symptoms are very similar to that of intoxication.

  • High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE)

If acute altitude sickness continues to persist, it can lead to High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). This is a severe form of AMS, where the brain ends up swelling and ceases to function normally. Its symptoms coincide with that of severe AMS and include drowsiness, irritability, confusion, and trouble in walking.

  • High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE)

This type of altitude sickness is a progression of HACE, but it may also occur on its own. It is a result of an excess fluid build-up in the lungs, thereby disrupting their functioning. The symptoms of HAPE include increased breathlessness, weakness, and severe coughing. HAPE must be treated immediately, either by lowering altitude or taking supplementary oxygen, as it can otherwise lead to death.

As we saw, high altitude is the sole cause of altitude sickness. But you might want to look a little more into the other related causes and risk factors.

Causes And Risk Factors For Altitude Sickness

When your body does not get accustomed to high altitudes, you may immediately begin to show symptoms of altitude sickness. As the altitude keeps increasing, there is less oxygen available, and this leads to altitude sickness.

The factors that put you at a higher risk of developing altitude sickness are:

  • A history of altitude sickness
  • Climbing more than 1600 feet per day
  • Rapid ascending

If you think you might be suffering from altitude sickness, you may want to get a proper diagnosis done. Given below are some common tests that your doctor may use to diagnose your condition.

Diagnosis For Altitude Sickness

Your doctor may begin the diagnosis by questioning you about the symptoms that you experience at high altitudes. He may further:

  • Use a stethoscope to listen to your chest (and heartbeat) for any signs of shortness of breath or fluid accumulation.
  • Conduct an X-ray examination to check for signs of fluid or lung collapse.

In case of fluid accumulation or a lung collapse, you must avail immediate treatment as it can otherwise turn critical.

Although you may not be able to get rid of altitude sickness overnight, you can definitely work toward making it better every time you travel to high altitudes. And talking about improving the condition, what could be better than some simply and natural ways?

Here is a list of some of the best remedies that can help you combat altitude sickness.

1. Vitamins

Antioxidants can help you breathe more easily at high altitudes. Nutrients like vitamins C and E can work wonders in this aspect as the two are antioxidants and can enhance your immunity (1), (2).

Foods rich in these vitamins include citrus fruits, spinach, kale, papaya, almonds, hazelnuts, and sunflower seeds. If you wish to take additional supplements for these vitamins, you may do so after having a word with your nutritionist or physician.

2. Coca Leaves

Coca Leaves
Image: Shutterstock
You Will Need
  • A few coca leaves
  • A little lime juice
What You Have To Do

Mix a few coca leaves in some lime juice and simply chew on them whenever you are ascending.

How Often You Should Do This

You must only do this during or prior to a hike or travel to an elevated area.

Why This Works

Coca leaves are found to help during exercise, even at higher altitudes. Their effect was felt over a prolonged period, which makes them a great option for relieving symptoms of altitude sickness as well (3).

3. Essential Oils

a. Peppermint Oil

Peppermint Oil
Image: Shutterstock
You Will Need
  • 3-4 drops of peppermint oil
  • 1 teaspoon of olive oil (or any other carrier oil)
What You Have To Do
  1. Add three to four drops of peppermint oil to a teaspoon of any carrier oil and mix well.
  2. Apply this to the back of your neck and temples.
  3. You can also add a few drops to a tissue or a handkerchief and sniff it from time to time.
How Often You Should Do This

You must do this as and when required, preferably soon after a climb.

Why This Works

Peppermint oil contains menthol that makes breathing easier. Altitude sickness often makes breathing a difficult task, which is why this remedy can work wonders (4).

b. Lavender Oil

Lavender Oil
Image: Shutterstock
You Will Need
  • 3 drops of lavender oil
  • 1 teaspoon of olive oil (or any other carrier oil)
What You Have To Do
  1. Mix three drops of lavender oil with a teaspoon of any carrier oil.
  2. Rub it on your temples and behind your neck.
  3. You can also inhale the aroma of lavender essential oil for added benefits.
How Often You Should Do This

You must do this prior to or while going to a higher altitude.

Why This Works

Lavender oil helps calm you down by relieving headache and nausea that accompany altitude sickness – which can be attributed to the powerful anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties of the oil (5), (6).

4. Ginger

Image: Shutterstock
You Will Need
  • A few slices of chopped ginger
  • Ginger candy or tea (optional)
What You Have To Do
  1. Chew on small pieces of chopped ginger while going to an elevated altitude.
  2. Alternatively, you can also suck on ginger candies or drink ginger tea whenever you feel uneasy.
How Often You Should Do This

Begin this treatment before the onset of the symptoms as a preventive measure or even after the symptoms start to surface.

Why This Works

Ginger is widely used to relieve symptoms of nausea and vomiting during pregnancy, both of which also surface with altitude sickness (7). And this can be attributed to its anti-inflammatory properties.

5. Garlic

Image: Shutterstock
You Will Need

2-3 garlic cloves

What You Have To Do

Chew on small bits of garlic cloves as you begin ascending.

How Often You Should Do This

You must do this as and when required during your travel.

Why This Works

Garlic is found to cause blood thinning due to its anti-platelet properties (8). Although this can prove fatal during a surgery or other such circumstances, it is very useful for treating altitude sickness. At high altitudes, your blood flow is often reduced, and garlic can help restore normal blood circulation.

6. Pickle Juice

Pickle Juice
Image: Shutterstock
You Will Need

A small bottle of pickle juice

What You Have To Do

Sip on a little pickle juice as you make the ascent.

How Often You Should Do This

You must do this only when you travel to higher altitudes.

Why This Works

Pickle juice is a rich source of electrolytes as it contains minerals like potassium and sodium (9). Since you tend to get dehydrated at high altitudes, sipping on some pickle juice can help restore the lost electrolytes and prevent altitude sickness altogether.

7. Lemon Juice

Lemon Juice
Image: Shutterstock
You Will Need
    • ½ lemon
  • 1 glass of water
  • A pinch of salt
What You Have To Do
  1. Squeeze out the juice from half a lemon and mix it with a glass of water.
  2. Add a pinch of salt to it and sip on this solution while traveling to higher altitudes.
How Often You Should Do This

You must do this whenever you fear the onset of altitude sickness.

Why This Works

Nausea and vomiting are some of the basic symptoms of altitude sickness that can make you feel quite uneasy. Drinking lemon juice or simply sucking on a cut lemon piece can help relieve these symptoms almost instantly (10).

Since your diet plays an important role in the functioning of your body, it requires special attention for treating altitude sickness. Many a time, you must have noticed some food makes you sick or nauseous – more so while traveling. Hence, you must also make some changes to your diet to steer clear of altitude sickness.

Best Foods To Eat For Preventing Altitude Sickness

Here is a list of carbohydrate-rich foods that can help prevent altitude sickness and even cut the risk:

  • Energy bars
  • Oatmeal with raisins
  • Whole wheat pancakes or waffles
  • Sandwiches low in fat
  • Sports drink
  • Rice
  • Pasta

Also, you must avoid fatty foods like pizza, French fries, etc.

Moving on to the last section of this post, listed below are some important prevention tips you must follow every time you go to high altitudes.

Prevention Tips

  • Try and climb to higher altitudes at a slow pace.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking enough water.
  • Try and return to a lower altitude before sleeping as altitude sickness worsens while you are sleeping.
  • Carry medications such as Acetazolamide (Diamox) with you for a quick fix to altitude sickness.
  • Practice Pranayama to get in sufficient oxygen.
  • Do not exercise at higher altitudes as it can exacerbate your condition.

Altitude sickness must not be taken lightly and should be attended to as soon as possible. The information provided in this post can help you get relief from the sickness to a great extent. However, in some cases, no matter what you try, altitude sickness may get to you. In such a scenario, it is best to get the affected person to a lower altitude before his/her condition gets complicated.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long do the effects of altitude sickness last?

If you happen to develop acute mountain sickness and do not descend to a lower elevation or get enough oxygen, your sickness may become more complicated and fatal. However, if you descend soon after the onset of the symptoms, you will be back to normal in 2 to 3 days.

At what altitude does it get hard to breathe?

You may first develop altitude sickness at a height of 6,000-8,000 feet. At a height of 10,000 feet, even those in their healthiest condition might find it difficult to breathe.

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Shaheen Naser
Shaheen NaserHealth & Wellness Writer
Shaheen holds a postgraduate degree in Human Genetics and Molecular Biology from Bharathiar University. She is a Geneticist with proficiency in Biotechnology, Immunology, Medical Genetics, Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Genetic Counseling.

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