If you’re an avid hiker, mountain climber, or survival enthusiast, your life is full of excitement and possible dangers. In addition to the many visible dangers while performing these activities, you’re also prone to invisible dangers, such as altitude sickness.
If you’re worried about altitude sickness or want to know more about it, this article is for you. We’re going to focus on how to prevent altitude sickness using various methods and how to know when you have it.
What Is Altitude Sickness?
Before learning how to prevent altitude sickness, it’s important to understand a little more about it. Altitude sickness is a condition that often stems from rapidly climbing to extravagant heights without first letting your body adapt to your surroundings.
It’s a very common condition and will affect roughly 50% of people who go from a low altitude to a higher one.
Altitude sickness often happens during mountain climbing, hikes, or survival activities at high altitudes. However, they can also happen simply by moving from one state to another.
For example, if you live in a flat, midwestern state such as Indiana or Iowa, you live at a low altitude of between 700 and 1,100 feet above sea level. If you decide to take a vacation to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, however, you’ll suddenly be at an elevation of anywhere from 6,000 to 14,000 feet.
This drastic change is enough to cause altitude sickness, especially if you compound it by going for a hike. Regarding figures, 8,000 feet is considered high enough for altitude sickness, while 10,000 to 14,000 feet will almost certainly cause it.
What Causes Altitude Sickness?
Another key to learning how to prevent altitude sickness is understanding what’s happening to your body. From a physiological standpoint, altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness, happens because of altitude and oxygen changes.
Higher elevations, such as those found in the mountains, don’t have nearly as much oxygen or air pressure as lower areas. Therefore, when you move from a low area to a high one, your body isn’t used to the atmospheric differences.
The combination of less oxygen and thinner air will make breathing harder and reduce the amount of oxygen in your blood. As a result, you’ll be gasping for air and find it difficult to take deep breaths when you’re first getting acclimated.
Altitude sickness is an equalizer because it affects everyone, no matter how in shape or physically fit you are. The condition revolves around oxygen and air pressure rather than your physiological state.
However, being in terrible shape or obese can compound the effects of altitude sickness and make them worse.
Signs and Symptoms of Altitude Sickness
If you know the signs and symptoms, you have the best chance of knowing how to prevent altitude sickness because you’ll be able to catch it early.
- Shortness of breath
- Quick fatigue
- Less energy
- Nausea and a stomach ache
- Tightness in your chest
In serious situations, altitude sickness can also cause sleep problems and a loss of appetite, and you may even have trouble catching your breath while resting. Additionally, serious altitude sickness can lead to fluid buildup in your lungs and become life-threatening.
However, you can avoid this type of situation by learning how to prevent altitude sickness and noticing when you have it.
How to Prevent Altitude Sickness Naturally?
The best way for how to prevent altitude sickness is to use natural methods and remedies. In most cases, you can learn how to prevent altitude sickness by making simple behavior and appetite adjustments if you know you’re moving to a high elevation.
Drink More Water
Hydration is crucial when it comes to knowing how to prevent altitude sickness. By increasing your water intake, you’re upping the amount of oxygen in your bloodstream and slightly negating the effect of reduced oxygen in the air.
Drinking water, Gatorade, and other sports drinks will also increase your electrolytes, which further helps prevent altitude sickness. Drinking water and other liquids are especially important while hiking or performing activities necessary for survival to replace the oxygen and energy you’re expending.
Drink Less Alcohol
While you want to drink lots of liquids to prevent altitude sickness, alcohol isn’t one of them. You should abstain from alcohol, nicotine, cigarettes, drugs, and certain medications that can worsen the effects of altitude sickness.
Your symptoms will worsen when you consume these things. Therefore, learning how to prevent altitude sickness revolves around avoiding certain foods and liquids just as much as it does consuming others.
Eat More Carbs
The one good thing about altitude sickness is that you can use it as an excuse to eat more carbs! Carbohydrates are packed with calories, which are essential for preventing altitude sickness.
Good foods packed with carbs include
- Nuts and trail mix
- Whole grain crackers and foods
Finding these foods in nature is difficult, so you should always keep some of them in your survival or hiking pack.
Take Your Time and Let Your Body Acclimate
Timing is the biggest key when learning how to prevent altitude sickness. Your body can adjust to the higher altitude, but it will take time.
Therefore, if you’re traveling via plane or car from a low elevation to a high one, you should give yourself a few days to acclimate before going on a hike. Or, if you simply can’t wait to get on the trail, you should hike slowly, take frequent rests, and consume a ton of carbs and water.
However, water and carbs will only go so far. Giving your body time to adjust is the biggest key to preventing altitude sickness.
You shouldn’t climb over 1,000 feet the first day or two at a new, high altitude. You should also plan an extra day of rest for every 3,000 feet of elevation you gain.
Using these simple rules, you can learn how to prevent altitude sickness like a pro.
Sleep at Lower Altitudes
While gaining elevation during a hike or climb can start feelings of elevation sickness, you can negate those feelings by sleeping at a lower altitude. Sleeping at elevations at least 1,000 feet less than the total elevation you gained during the day will go a long way toward lessening your symptoms.
For example, if you start your hike at 8,000 feet and climb a minimum of 1,000 feet, you should sleep at an elevation of 8,000 feet or less. Ideally, you should sleep at 7,000 feet, but that isn’t always possible if the hiking trail is close to your base camp.
Don’t Exert Energy Outside of Your Hikes and Climbs
If you’re in a survival scenario, reducing your activity level is harder than if you’re on vacation. However, if you’re struggling with altitude sickness, your body is already low on calories, carbs, and oxygen.
All the extra energy you exert while hunting for food or gathering firewood will worsen your symptoms. Therefore, if possible, you should try to take it easy and avoid any activities that aren’t essential.
Get Vitamin C, E, and Lipoic Acid Into Your Body
While supplemental pills and medications are more effective in terms of how to prevent altitude sickness, there are plenty of natural things you can find in nature. Specifically, you should look for foods and plants high in Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and Lipoic Acid.
While medications are preferable and more potent, you can learn how to prevent altitude sickness using things you find in nature.
- Foods High in Vitamin C
When Vitamin C is at the top of the priority list, you should gravitate toward citrus fruits such as oranges, mandarins, lemons, limes, and kiwis. You should also look for plants and vegetables such as sprouts, cabbage, rose hips, hibiscus flowers, and red raspberry leaves.
- Foods High in Vitamin E
If you need Vitamin E, you should focus on nuts, sunflower seeds, sunflower oil, peppers, pumpkins, and spinach. Depending on where you are, many of these things are readily available in nature if you know what to look for.
- Foods High in Lipoic Acid
When it comes to lipoic acid, you should start looking for red meat and proteins. Peas, tomatoes, spinach, broccoli, and animal organs such as the liver, heart, and kidneys are also high in lipoic acid.
What Medicine Can You Take to Prevent Altitude Sickness?
While natural remedies and foods are a great start, medicine offers a more powerful option when learning how to prevent altitude sickness. Here are some of the best altitude sickness prevention medications to have on hand if possible.
Ibuprofen and Tylenol
Ibuprofen and Tylenol are great options to help prevent the headaches that altitude sickness causes. However, you should avoid other headache pills, such as Aspirin, because they can cause thinning of the blood, which will further reduce your blood-oxygen level.
Because of how it affects your body, ibuprofen can also help reduce the risk of altitude sickness and is, therefore, the better option.
The best medicine for how to prevent altitude sickness is Acetazolamide. However, Acetazolamide is a prescription drug, so you’ll need to see a doctor to receive it.
If you explain that you’re traveling to a higher elevation and are worried about altitude sickness, you might get your prescription.
Promethazine or Pepto Bismol
Finally, you’ll need promethazine, Pepto Bismol, or another medicine to ease nausea caused by altitude sickness.
How to Treat Altitude Sickness if You Already Have It
Despite your best efforts and all the research you put into learning how to prevent altitude sickness, you might still get it. As we said before, altitude sickness is very common and pesky and affects roughly 50% of people who travel to higher elevations.
So, in addition to learning how to prevent altitude sickness, you should also learn how to treat it.
Most mild cases of altitude sickness will go away on their own once your body acclimates to the new elevation. However, to speed up the process, you can take any foods and medications listed above.
You should also abstain from all activity until your body acclimates to the higher elevation. Rest and patience, while crucial in learning how to prevent altitude sickness, are just as important in treating it.
Even if you have a moderate case of altitude sickness, it usually goes away after a day or two of acclimation. By day three, you should feel back to normal, especially if you adhere to the recommendations on this list for how to prevent altitude sickness.
While severe cases of altitude sickness are rare, they can happen. If they do, you should get to an elevation of fewer than 4,000 feet as soon as possible.
You should also get to a medical center so that they can treat you with oxygen, medications, and IV treatments to get more oxygen into your bloodstream.
Possible Complications Altitude Sickness Can Lead to
The main reason it’s important to learn how to prevent altitude sickness is because of the dangerous complications it can lead to. While these complications are rare, they can happen and are potentially life-threatening when they do.
- (HACE) High Altitude Cerebral Edema is when your brain doesn’t get enough oxygen and starts swelling. Symptoms of HACE include a loss of coordination, severe dizziness, headaches, memory loss, hallucinations, and, eventually, a coma.
- (HAPE) High Altitude Pulmonary Edema is when oxygen reduction causes fluid buildup in your lungs. Symptoms of HAPE include blue skin, a cough that won’t go away, extreme confusion and irrationality, severe fatigue and chest tightness, and coughing up white fluid.
For each of these conditions, you’ll need immediate medical attention and to get to a lower elevation level.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the best way to prevent altitude sickness?
The best way to prevent altitude sickness is by giving your body time to acclimate to your new elevation. When you think about it, the people who live at these elevations don’t struggle with altitude sickness, which means that the body can acclimate given enough time.
What is the fastest way to adjust to high altitude?
Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix when it comes to adjusting to high altitudes. The best thing you can do is ascend or climb slowly and avoid more than 1,000 feet of elevation gain per day.
Can altitude sickness be fatal?
In serious situations, altitude sickness can prove fatal. However, this is typically only when you suffer from HAPE or HACE.
Final Thoughts About How to Prevent Altitude Sickness
There are many things to know when hiking and surviving at high elevations, but knowing how to prevent altitude sickness should be at the top of your list. While most cases of altitude sickness are minor and go away independently, it can dampen your journey and make it tough to survive in extreme situations.
For more survival and safety tips about protecting yourself in extreme scenarios, check out our Survival World safety pages!