Altitude headache is very likely to develop along with nausea, dizziness, and other symptoms when an altitude, as high as 8500 feet above sea level is reached. Around one-fourth of those who ascend mountains, develop this headache also known as acute altitude sickness headache. It is felt mostly in the temples and forehead. Headache is throbbing, dull, and pressing in character and disappears within 24 hours of coming back to a height lower than 8200 feet.
Symptoms of altitude headache
- Headache that aggravates upon exertion. The intensity of headache ranges from mild to moderate and moderate to severe as the altitude increases.
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of consciousness
- Fatigue and general lethargy
- Cerebral edema rarely occurs
- Loss of appetite
- Facial flushing
- Shortness of breath
- A dry cough
Causes of altitude headache
Several theories explain the cause behind altitude headache. Some of these are:
- As the altitude increases, the atmospheric pressure drops causing decrease in air entry into the lungs ultimately leading to hypoxia. Hypoxia causes a headache, as enough nourishment does not reach the brain tissues.
- Another cause is excessive vasodilation in the vessels of the scalp and brain that takes place as a result of hypoxia.
Risk factors and triggers
- Old age as the lung capacity decreases with increasing age.
- Increasing altitude; the intensity of headache increases as the height increases.
- History of any headache condition such as a migraine or tension headache is also a prominent risk factor.
- Any sort of physical exertion can also trigger an episode.
- A sudden ascent in comparison with a slow, leisurely hike that takes place over several days is more likely to cause an altitude headache.
- Dehydration can also increase the severity of symptoms.
Management of altitude headache
A few signs can help diagnose an altitude headache, these are:
- Headache occurs after ascent to an altitude of more than 8000 to 9000 feet
- The headache aggravates by exertion
- The headache goes away within 24 hours of coming back to an altitude as low as 8,000 feet.
- An altitude headache can be easily prevented by acclimatizing yourself, a few days before heading towards the elevation.
- A slow ascent that takes place over a few days and is not more than 1500 feet per day, can also help in preventing an episode.
- By avoiding the use of tobacco and alcohol.
- Avoid taking any sort of sleeping pills and barbiturates.
- Headache can be relieved by taking Ibuprofen, aspirin.
- In some cases, furosemide and acetazolamide have also proven to be effective.
- Acetazolamide is especially helpful for trouble sleeping.
- If the headache resembles a migraine, sumatriptan can also be taken.
- Stay hydrated by drinking 5 to 6 glasses of water per day.
- Take deep breaths during the hike and try to ascend slowly.
- You can also carry oxygen in small canisters during your stay at a higher altitude.
When to consult a doctor?
If you start experiencing severe symptoms such as cerebral edema and have a consistent headache that would not go away within 24 hours of coming back to a height lower than 8200 feet. You should consult a doctor as soon as possible.
Exactly at what altitude does a headache occurs?
An altitude headache usually occurs at a height of more than 8500 feet above sea level.
What can be done before time to avoid getting an altitude headache?
Acclimatize yourself to higher altitudes and gradually ascend, the height not being more than 1600 feet per day.
What is the main cause of headaches due to acute altitude sickness?
The main cause is a sudden difference in atmospheric pressure and hypoxia experienced by brain tissues.