If you enjoy hiking or skiing in the mountains, you’re probably aware of one of the most common side effects of spending time at high altitudes: altitude headaches. These occur when a person ascends to a high altitude. It is the most prominent symptom of acute mountain sickness (AMS) and may also include other symptoms such as dizziness, muscle aches and nausea.
This article reviews why altitude headaches occur and how to prevent them.
altitude range for altitude headache
People traveling to destinations above 8,000 feet may experience altitude headaches and other symptoms of acute mountain sickness.
At high altitudes, reduced air pressure reduces the oxygen capacity in cells, called cells hypoxia. This can cause headaches. Symptoms worsen as you travel to higher altitudes.
headache sensation and location
Altitude headaches can feel different and more intense than other types of headaches. You can identify a plateau headache by the following characteristics:
- Severe, severe headache 6 hours to 4 days after high altitude
- Generalized headache or forehead pain only
- Headache that gets worse when you strain, strain, lie down, or cough
- Head pain that lasts up to five days
Other signs of altitude sickness
Altitude headache is the most common symptom of AMS, but symptoms may include:
- loss of appetite
- sleep disorder
Prevalence of AMS
The American Migraine Association reports that one in four people who ascend above 8,500 feet will experience at least some symptoms of AMS.
When you travel to high altitudes, your lungs breathe less oxygen. As a result, you may experience hypoxia or low oxygen in your blood. The lack of oxygen then reduces oxygen in body tissues, such as the brain.
Studies have shown that lack of oxygen can trigger altitude headaches, even in healthy people with no history of headaches.
Many factors can affect whether a person will experience altitude headache or other AMS symptoms. These can include:
- State of health
- ascent rate
- exercise intensity
- Existing conditions
- home altitude
Exercise and other types of physical activity are performed at high altitudes for a number of reasons.
Many sports and recreational activities occur only at high altitudes, such as in the mountains. However, being active at high altitudes puts you at higher risk for altitude headaches and other AMS symptoms.
Some professional and recreational athletes, such as football players, boxers or gymnasts, train at high altitudes to maximize their endurance and athletic potential. Many athletes and coaches believe that high-altitude training improves overall athletic performance more than sea-level training.
Some recreational activities associated with the highest levels of altitude headache and other AMS symptoms include:
- downhill skiing
- travel on foot
- mountain biking
In general, these activities are safe as long as people slowly acclimate to the new altitude, pay attention when they develop AMS symptoms, receive treatment when needed, and return to lower altitudes if symptoms persist or become dangerous.
The highest elevations in the United States (over 8,000 feet) are most susceptible to altitude headaches. These include:
- Denali, Mount St. Elias and several other places in Alaska
- Mount Whitney, Mount Williamson, and other parts of California (especially the Sierra Nevada region)
- Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming
- Mount Rainer in Washington
- Uinta Mountains, Utah
Treatment of altitude headaches is similar to other types of headaches. If desired, this can include over-the-counter (OTC) products such as ibuprofen and antiemetics.
Many acute mountain sickness symptoms can also be relieved upon returning to lower altitudes. People must descend slowly to reduce the risk of:
- high altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE): Too much fluid in the lungs (causing difficulty breathing)
- high altitude Brain edema (HACE): Excessive fluid buildup in the brain and swelling of the brain (causing confusion or lack of coordination)
HAPE and HACE are life-threatening altitude sickness. Both require immediate descent to a lower altitude and emergency medical care.
Prevention and Travel Advice
There are some helpful ways to prevent or reduce the development of altitude headaches or other AMS symptoms, such as:
- stay hydrated
- Gradually rise with rest days (adaptation)
- sleep at lower altitudes as much as possible
Talk to your healthcare provider about medications you can take before your trip that may help reduce or prevent altitude-related health problems, such as aspirin, furosemideor Acetazolamide.
High altitude headaches may occur at altitudes above 8,000 feet due to changes in air pressure. They often feel like the severe, throbbing head pain that develops and persists after high altitude.
Treatment includes ibuprofen and anti-nausea medication or return to lower altitudes. You can prevent or reduce the occurrence of altitude headaches by staying hydrated, ascending gradually, sleeping at lower altitudes if possible, and taking certain medications.
Aerial sports and other recreational activities provide fun for many people. However, altitude headaches or other AMS symptoms can be painful, debilitating, or dangerous. Knowing the risks and symptoms to watch out for before going up to high altitudes is critical. Before your next high-altitude trip, speak with your healthcare provider and discuss potential risks and treatments.
Frequently Asked Questions
What medicine can quickly relieve altitude headache?
Treatment of altitude headaches is similar to other types of headaches, including ibuprofen and anti-nausea medication if needed.
How long do plateau headaches last?
High altitude headaches can last up to five days. They may breathe a sigh of relief once you get back to a lower altitude.
Which states are more prone to high altitude headaches?
The states most at risk for altitude headaches are those with the highest mountains (over 8,000 feet above sea level), such as:
- California (mainly in the Sierra Nevada region)
- Colorado and Wyoming (Rocky Mountains)
Does Supplemental Oxygen Help Prevent Altitude Headaches?
Studies have shown that supplemental oxygen via nasal cannula (two tubes in the nose) at high altitudes can prevent chronic mountain sickness symptoms, such as headaches, by protecting respiratory function and improving hypoxia.