Altitude Headache – Location, Symptoms and Treatment

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.

Location of pain

Headache is felt mostly in temples and forehead.

Duration of pain

The Altitude Headache disappears within 24 hours of coming back to a height lower than 8200 feet.

Character of pain

Headache is throbbing, dull, and pressing in character.

Symptoms

  • Nausea and Vomiting
  • Dizziness and Headache
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Fatigue and general Lethargy
  • Headache that aggravates upon exertion
  • The intensity ranges from mild to moderate and moderate to severe as the altitude increases.
  • Cerebral edema rarely occurs
  • Loss of appetite
  • Facial flushing
  • Shortness of breath
  • A dry cough

Causes

A number of theories explain the cause behind Altitude Headache. Some of these are:

  • As the altitude increases the atmospheric pressure decreases causing the decreased amount of oxygen entering the lungs and general state of hypoxia. Hypoxia develops a headache, as enough nourishment does not reach the brain tissues.
  • Another causes 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.

Diagnosis

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.

Prevention

  • An Altitude Headache can be easily prevented by acclimatizing yourself, a few days prior to 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.

Treatment

  • 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.

Home Remedies

  • 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 if your symptoms don’t subside even after 24 hours.

FAQ

Exactly at what altitude does a headache occurs?

An Altitude Headache usually occurs at a height higher 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.