How To Prevent Altitude Headache

Medically Reviewed by Dr. K on 13 May 2022. 

What Is an Altitude Headache?

When you're in the mountains to ski, hike, or just take in the scenery, you may get a headache known as an altitude headache. It's a sign of altitude sickness, which arises as you ascend to higher altitudes.

The problem usually begins when you're 8,500 feet above sea level. When people reach height, about 25% will get a headache.

 

Causes

The precise cause of altitude headaches remains unclear. If you climb higher, the amount of oxygen available decreases, and the body does not receive enough to supply all of your tissues, a condition is known as hypoxia. Despite the reality that hypoxia is a sign of altitude sickness, doctors are also uncertain if and how it contributes to symptoms including headache.

Experts agree that the further you travel, the most likely you are to have a headache. If you gradually accustom your body to the higher elevation, you can reduce your odds. If you live at sea level, for example, you're more likely to get a headache as you ascend to 8,500 feet than someone who lives at, say, 5,000 feet at the base of the mountain.

It's also important to consider how quickly you ascend a mountain. An 8-minute ski lift trip to the peak of the mountain is more likely to cause you a headache than a multi-day climb to the same elevation. Just be careful not to push yourself too aggressively at higher altitudes, such as while hiking, biking, or skiing, as this may trigger headaches.

Symptoms

Moderate headache pain normally occurs about 8,500 feet, and it is encountered on all sides of the brain. It can get worse when you ascend higher or when you cough, push yourself strongly or bend over. Another sign that the headache was triggered by being at a higher level is that it goes away within 24 hours of returning to below 8,200 feet.

The most frequent symptom of altitude sickness is a headache, which may occur without any other symptoms. However, this condition is associated with a variety of other issues. You can also suffer fatigue, weakness, dizziness, nausea, and difficulties sleeping.

Prevention

The easiest way to avoid an altitude headache while traveling to a higher height is to take things slowly. When you climb more than 1,600 feet a day, you're way more likely to get sick, particularly if your body is working hard.

As you climb to higher elevations, it's essential to stay hydrated, at least 12 cups a day, and to increase your carbohydrate intake to about three-quarters of your total calories. Tobacco and alcohol, as well as medications like barbiturates and sleeping pills, make it more difficult for the body to adjust to higher altitudes. If you have some concerns about your prescription, speak to your doctor.

 

Treatment

The only cure for altitude headaches and altitude sickness, in general, is to descend to a lower height. In more severe situations, breathing in some oxygen, which you can take in small canisters with you before you can get to a lower elevation, can help.

If you're prone to altitude headaches, taking medications like furosemide, acetazolamide (Diamox), or corticosteroids before going to high altitudes can help avoid them. These prescriptions require a doctor's prescription.

Ibuprofen or aspirin, both over-the-counter drugs, can aid both before and after the headache begins. Some people benefit from the migraine medication sumatriptan. If you realize you get headaches at higher elevations, talk to the doctor about which medications are right for you.

Sources

Referenced on 2.3.2021:

  1. Altitude.org: “Altitude Sickness."
  2. American Migraine Foundation: “Altitude, Acute Mountain Sickness and Headache."
  3. Cleveland Clinic: “Altitude Sickness."
  4. The Migraine Trust: “High altitude headache."
  5. The International Classification of Headache Disorders 3rd edition: “10.1.1 High-altitude headache."
  6. University of Colorado UC Health: “Know if you have altitude sickness and when to worry."
  7. UpToDate: “Patient education: High altitude illness (including mountain sickness) (Beyond the Basics)."
  8. https://www.webmd.com/migraines-headaches/altitude-headache-overview

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