High Altitude: What is Altitude Sickness?

Mountain living offers a great way to relax and unwind from stressful everyday life in the city. The fresh mountain air creates an excellent combination of anti-stress elements that you can’t get in the lowlands. But at some point during your trip, you may find that staying at high altitudes can make you feel uncomfortable. You may have problems enjoying activities at altitude or that feeling that you can’t sleep in mountains. This may be caused by altitude sickness. What is altitude sickness, and at what elevation is altitude sickness a problem? Read on to learn more.

What is Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness is a general state of feeling unwell characterized by symptoms such as headaches, loss of appetite, and restlessness in mountains. This can occur when a person travels to elevated areas, causing the body to respond adversely to low oxygen levels (hypoxia). Some instances where you can experience altitude sickness include skiing or hiking, driving over a mountain pass, or traveling from a low altitude city to a mountain destination. 

At What Elevation is Altitude Sickness a Problem?

Altitude sickness commonly occurs at 6,000 feet (2,500 meters) or above. Here in Colorado, where three-quarters of the nation’s land above 10,000 feet is found, this is common, especially among tourists. At these elevations, the air pressure drops, which means the oxygen concentration is low. To compensate, your body tends to breathe faster to get the amount of oxygen it needs to function properly.

How Does It Manifest?

The symptoms of altitude sickness can appear anywhere from a few hours to a day or more after arriving at an elevated area. How the condition manifests can vary depending on the severity of the sickness, ranging from acute to severe. Acute mountain sickness often comes with pretty mild symptoms (akin to a hangover) and may include the following:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Sleeplessness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dry skin

In many cases, altitude sickness can go away after a day or two once the body adjusts to the new altitude. But in some cases, more moderate symptoms could develop, including intense headache, tightening of the chest, and a loss of coordination while walking.

In more rare cases, altitude sickness can manifest more severely in some patients, leading to high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), and causing shortness of breath that progresses into difficulty breathing, and ultimately respiratory failure.

The most severe form of altitude sickness is high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), which manifests as:

  • Confusion
  • Loss of voluntary muscle control
  • Hallucinations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coma

High Altitude Periodic Breathing

For persons with sleep apnea, the mountains may exacerbate the. This includes a general feeling of restlessness in mountains, which is a leading cause of problems sleeping at altitude. In addition, if you have sleep apnea, you may feel that you can’t sleep in mountains because of changes in your breathing pattern, causing you to have a lack of energy. This is called high altitude periodic breathing and is characterized by a feeling of unstable breathing while asleep. 

In areas with low oxygen levels, oxygen-deprived blood causes the person to take rapid deep breaths that alternate with central apnea to pump more oxygen into the blood. When this happens, the person will be unable to sleep soundly and will wake up regularly with a feeling of lack of adequate oxygen. While this condition may be common in those with sleep apnea, mountains can also have this effect on people with normal sleeping patterns.

How is Altitude Sickness Treated?

The first sign of altitude sickness is usually a headache followed by at least one other symptom. In mild cases, taking over-the-counter medication and rest can relieve symptoms. Take time to rest and acclimate yourself to the surroundings at your current elevation. Keep warm, drink plenty of fluids, and give your body time to adjust before heading to higher altitudes.

In cases where mild symptoms don’t disappear after a few days, progress to moderate symptoms, or are already severe, head to a lower elevation immediately and seek medical help.

Does Oxygenation Prevent Altitude Sickness?

Medical experts recommend heading to areas with low altitudes to relieve symptoms of altitude sickness. This isn’t about the elevation itself but the amount of oxygen present in the air at these levels. Fortunately, there is a way to mimic these atmospheric conditions. 

With a customized oxygenation system in your home, you can prevent the adverse effects of hypoxia by introducing more oxygen into your immediate surroundings and simulating a lower altitude on your body. But a safe and effective system requires more than just pumping oxygen in a room. It needs supportive technologies to truly simulate low-altitude conditions while adhering to safety standards set by the CDC for safe oxygen levels, OSHA for indoor air quality, and the NFPA for fire-safe oxygen use. ACT’s oxygenation systems come equipped with an intelligent control system with sensors that use algorithms to detect and control indoor oxygen and pressure levels.

Spending at least six hours inside a safe, oxygen-rich environment can help you recover from symptoms of altitude sickness, giving you more energy to enjoy the rich mountain landscape. Enjoy carefree mountain living with an oxygenation system from Altitude Control Technology.