Altitude sickness (mountain sickness) is associated with mountain climbing and with being in high-elevation locations such as Mt. Everest or the mountains of Peru. Altitude sickness can vary in severity. The mildest form of altitude sickness (acute mountain sickness) can occur from flying.
Altitude sickness (mountain sickness) occurs if you increase your elevation quickly without having time to adjust to the lowered oxygen and air pressure found at high altitudes. High altitude begins at around 8,000 feet.
Airplanes fly at very high altitudes of up to 30,000 to 45,000 feet. The cabin air pressure in an airplane is adjusted to compensate for these high altitudes. The oxygen level is comparable to levels found in elevations of 5,000 to 9,000 feet.
Both men and women can get altitude sickness. Age, general health, and physical condition do not affect your chances for altitude sickness. However, not everyone who mountain climbs, hikes, or flies gets this condition.
Read on to learn more about altitude sickness and air travel.
Altitude sickness symptoms vary based upon the type of altitude sickness that you have. Symptoms may begin after three to nine hours of flying at high elevations.
The mildest form, which is the type you’re more likely to get from flying, can sometimes mimic intoxication. Symptoms of mild altitude sickness include:
- shortness of breath
- loss of appetite
- trouble sleeping or sleepiness
- lack of energy
Altitude sickness is caused by a too-fast escalation in altitude. That’s because it takes several days for your body to adjust to the decreased amount of oxygen and lower air pressure level that occur at high elevations.
Climbing or hiking up a mountain too quickly can cause altitude sickness to occur. So can skiing in high elevations or traveling to a location that has a higher elevation than the area you’re used to.
You may be more likely to get altitude sickness on flights if you’re dehydrated. Drinking alcohol or caffeinated beverages before and during your flight can also increase your chances of experiencing symptoms.
Age may also have a slight effect on your risk. Results from a 2007 study of 502 participants suggest that people under 60 may be more likely to get altitude sickness on airplanes than older individuals. The same study found that women may get it more often than men.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, age, sex, and general health do not seem to make a difference in risk for altitude sickness. However, while general health may not be a risk factor for altitude sickness, high elevations could exacerbate heart or lung conditions. Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned and are planning a long flight or traveling to a high altitude
Possible risk factors for developing altitude sickness from air travel include:
If you’ve flown in an airplane in the past one or two days, and have altitude sickness symptoms, let your doctor know. There’s no specific test used to diagnose mild altitude sickness, but your doctor may make this diagnosis if you’re experiencing a headache, plus one other symptom of this condition.
If your symptoms worsen or do not improve within two days, it’s important to see a doctor.
If you’ve flown to a location in a high altitude and your symptoms persist, your doctor will recommend that you return to a lower elevation level in a quick and safe manner. You may also benefit from taking an over-the-counter pain medication for your headache.
Mild altitude sickness symptoms usually start to dissipate once the altitude level has been adjusted.
If you get mild altitude sickness on an airplane, your chances for full recovery are excellent provided you treat the condition quickly. Serious complications can occur if you remain in a high altitude and don’t seek medical care.