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Altitude Sickness While Hiking: Symptoms and Treatment

For hikers who aspire to reach the tallest peaks, or even for those hiking at relatively moderate elevations they’re unaccustomed to, altitude sickness is a real concern. Caused by a lack of oxygen at higher altitudes, altitude sickness can bring on headaches, trouble sleeping and other mild to severe symptoms. Luckily, several treatments are available that can address these issues.

Backroads Pro Tip

Altitude sickness can take up to a day to occur, with symptoms often becoming worse at night. It can also often be mistaken for other illnesses or conditions, including dehydration and the flu.

Symptoms

First, it’s important to determine whether you have altitude sickness (also called acute mountain sickness). The most common symptoms are the following:

  • Throbbing headaches
  • Lack of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Dizzy spells
  • Shortness of breath

Severe symptoms include becoming confused, feeling faint and having trouble breathing. You may also notice graying of the lips or fingernails. If symptoms become this severe, seek medical assistance right away, and get to a lower altitude as quickly as possible.

Altitude Sickness While Hiking: Symptoms and Treatment

Treatments

If going to the doctor is not an option, there are a few ways you can treat altitude sickness while on the go.

Go to a lower altitude

Descending to a lower altitude can help alleviate any symptoms you feel, and it’s the quickest and safest fix for altitude sickness. Often it won’t take much of a drop in elevation to start feeling significantly better.

Acclimate to the altitude

If descending is not possible or if symptoms are mild enough, stay at your current altitude and let your body acclimate. Rest up, stay hydrated and take it easy as your body gets used to the altitude. As a precaution, you should always work up to a higher altitude by resting before your ascent. Let your body acclimatize to each new level of altitude slowly as you hike.

Backroads Pro Tip

If you’re on a multiday hike at high elevation, it’s good practice to, after making camp for the night, take an additional short hike to gain some elevation, then drop back to your camp.  This more gradual elevation gain approach can help your body better acclimate to higher elevations and avoid the symptoms of altitude sickness.

Ask your doctor for medicine ahead of time

Various medications can help control the effects of altitude sickness. Consider asking your doctor for a prescription for medications such as Diamox or Procardia. Your doctor may also have advice on what over-the-counter medications may help alleviate any mild symptoms you may encounter.

Drink and eat well

Drinking plenty of water and eating meals heavy in carbohydrates (think pastas, cereals and bread) can help alleviate symptoms of altitude sickness.

Avoid smoking and alcohol

Since altitude sickness can cause shortness of breath, avoid smoking. Alcohol is dehydrating, which can worsen symptoms of altitude sickness.

Altitude sickness is a serious matter, but with a bit of knowledge and preparation, you can be ready to recognize symptoms and to put the right treatment into effect.

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