How to avoid that Altitude Headache

by James on 9 October 2009

Whether you’re going hiking for the weekend, or just visiting Uncle Frank who lives at a high altitude, mountain sickness – and so an altitude headache – could be a risk for you.  You may not have thought about it, but it’s actually quite common, and headache is a common symptom.

Most often, acute mountain sickness is going to be a factor for you if you experience a major change in altitude.  Though this could happen travelling from city to city, more likely it’s the case when you’re actually hiking in the mountains, especially if you’re not used to it.

Popocatépetl Volcano Mountain in Mexico - 5,426 m (17,802 ft)

Besides headache, you could experience trouble sleeping, light headedness, nausea, shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, dizziness, and a loss of appetite.

If you get more severe mountain sickness, you could find you’re having trouble walking a straight line, your skin gets bluish, gray or pale, you get confused, your chest gets tight and you can’t even catch your breath while you’re resting, and you start coughing and may even cough up blood.  This is very serious, and can even lead to death if not treated.

A recent study in the Eastern Alps reminded me that a little education can prevent a lot of problems here.  Researchers found that water intake was a factor, for example.  Make sure you’re well hydrated, especially when you’re up in higher altitudes.

Also, exertion seemed to play a big role.  Often people are hiking hard when they’re simply not experienced – take it slow, and you can avoid a lot of problems.

A history of migraine was also a risk factor.  Those of us with migraine do need to be more careful when climbing to higher altitudes.  Drink lots and take it slow, and headache symptoms can be minimized.

If you’re travelling up above 6300 feet / 1900 meters you do have a chance of experiencing mild symptoms.  Over 14,000ft / 4,200m, and you can almost bet on it.  But a little caution, awareness and preparation can hopefully make your trip much more enjoyable.

More on acute mountain sickness

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Ann October 10, 2009 at 12:16 am

Thanks for posting this! Living in Santa Fe, NM (7000 ft), I meet a lot of people visiting from sea level areas who are having difficulty adjusting. I always suggest not trying to take on too much and drinking fluids as much as possible. When I moved here a year ago, I noticed a lot of the symptoms you listed. :) Thanks for all the great info as usual!

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MaxJerz October 12, 2009 at 3:09 pm

I definitely have issues with altitude headaches, or change in altitude triggering a Migraine. I noticed it last summer when I was driving with my family up in the mountains, and several times when crossing through high-altitude mountain passes.

One thing I’ve discovered that helps if you’re changing altitude rapidly (ie, driving over a mountain pass) is to take frequent breaks. During our most recent trip, we stopped the car several times on the way up and down the mountains, and I would get out and walk around for a few minutes. That way the change wasn’t quite so abrupt.

From what I’ve read, certain medications (like Diamox) can also be prescribed to preventively treat altitude headaches, so that’s also something to keep in mind.

Be well,
MJ

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Lena December 30, 2009 at 10:09 pm

I read in the book/PDF that is from http://www.headachedrugs.com that altitude headaches can be prevented with a single dose of steroids before the flight. Friend did that coupled with meclizine and went from being in total agony on flights to being fine. I wish my headaches were that easy to solve!

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