Your Healthy Family: Symptoms of altitude sickness

Posted at 5:17 PM, Jul 25, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-25 19:17:30-04

The symptoms of altitude sickness can vary greatly, from mild and subtle symptoms to severe and debilitating symptoms that, at their worst, can be life-threatening.

Understanding the condition, how it works, its symptoms and who is most at risk is key to early treatment that can often help people feel better very quickly.

Dr. John Hall is an emergency department physician  with UCHealth Pikes Peak Regional Hospital in Woodland Park, Colorado.  The hospital sits at just under 9,000 feet, altitude sickness is something seen in the emergency department frequently.  

Dr. Hall says, “Out of the 600 to 800 patients we see a month, we see probably two to four cases easily during the winter months, and significantly more, as much as eight or nine during the summer months.  The last shift I worked I actually saw four, which was kind rare.”

There are differing levels of altitude sickness, as explained by Dr. Hall: “Altitude sickness is a spectrum of disease. It begins with acute mountain illness, then develops into high altitude pulmonary edema, and in the end can result in something called high altitude cerebral edema, which can be lethal.”

Altitude Sickness Spectrum

  • Acute mountain illness
  • High altitude pulmonary edema
  • High altitude cerebral edema

Living at altitude of varying levels in Colorado is something most people get used to after only a few days.  For visitors to our state, or even local who tackle a 14er, altitude sickness is a very real concern.

Dr. Hall says it’s important to be aware of the subtle, early symptoms of altitude sickness to keep it from getting worse. “The first symptoms that most people experience are usually headache, nausea, fatigue, and shortness of breath, and obviously, shortness of breath with exertion.”  

Altitude Sickness Mild Symptoms

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lightheaded

“The typical complaints that we see (in the emergency room) are patients who are come visiting here from sea level.  Places like Georgia, Miami, New Jersey – states that are at lower elevations. Those people come up here (Colorado) and they have difficulty breathing, they’re short of breath they have a headache.  They’re nauseous, they’re weak, they’re fatigued and get short of breath with minimal exertion.”

Dr. Hall says there are severe symptoms of altitude sickness that signal it’s time to see a doctor.

Altitude Sickness Severe Symptoms

  • Can’t breathe
  • Chest Pain
  • Heart Palpitations
  • Coughing up white frothy sputum
  • Coughing up a blood

“Anybody with shortness of breath at rest – that is a very concerning symptom.  Also chest pain, heavy palpitations or feeling like your heart is pounding out of your chest.  Next thing you know they are coughing up this white frothy stuff, or maybe even coughing up a little blood. These are concerning symptoms.  If you’re normally very active at home at sea level, you’re running two miles a day and then up here (at high altitude) you just sit down if you’re short of breath that’s a concerning symptom.  You need to come to be seen by someone.”

In our next Your Healthy Family story on altitude sickness, Dr. Hall, will explain the main risk factors that open people up to altitude sickness and the many ways it’s treated.