Encyclopedia of Sports Medicine and Science

Contents · Search · Encyc Home · Sportsci Home

ALTITUDE: Acclimatization to Intermediate Altitudes
Luanne F. Hallagan
Edwin C. Pigman
Department of Emergency Medicine
George Washington University Medical Center
Washington, DC

Physiologic Effects of Altitude Acclimatization and Exercise
Prevention and Treatment of Acute Mountain Sickness

By 37 BC, the ancient Chinese recognized a peculiar illness when they hiked the passes of what they later named the Little Headache and Great Headache mountains. The first westerner to describe mountain sickness was the Jesuit priest, Jose de Acosta, who accompanied the Spanish Conquistadors in Peru. Since then researchers have described the consequences of travel to high altitudes and named the syndrome acute mountain sickness (AMS). Acute mountain sickness is characterized by a constellation of symptoms. Headache is the main symptom. Nausea, vomiting, dyspnea (shortness of breath), and insomnia are other common symptoms. The traveler at altitude can also experience impaired cognition and balance. Onset of symptoms typically occurs within hours to three days after arrival at altitude. These symptoms tend to resolve after several days but can persist for up to two weeks. They can be the harbinger of the fatal conditions, high-altitude cerebral edema and high-altitude pulmonary edema.

At intermediate altitudes, 1,500-3,000 meters, up to 25% of unacclimatized travelers may experience AMS. People with serious lung, heart and blood diseases are more likely to develop AMS. Healthy young adults who participate in vigorous activity upon arrival at altitude are also at great risk for AMS. Individuals with a prior history of AMS and who live at low elevations are especially susceptible. Those who travel rapidly to altitude, as is common with air travel, are also at greater risk for AMS.

Physiologic Effects of Altitude Acclimatization and Exercise


Studies have been conflicting regarding the impact of increasing altitude on cardiac output and contractility. Laboratory studies using hypobaric chambers to duplicate the effects of altitudes of 4,000 to 8,000 meters have shown a diminished cardiac output at maximal exercise. Other laboratory studies have shown an unchanged or improved cardiac performance at those same altitudes. These studies have shown that, despite a decrease in blood volume and reduced ventricular filling pressure commonly seen at altitude, cardiac output is maintained. Furthermore, an increase in cardiac output is seen at rest and at exercise when compared to the same activities at sea level. This increase is related to an increased sympathetic nervous activity, as demonstrated by increased blood norepinephrine concentration. On initial exposure to altitudes heart rate increases for a given intensity of exercise, but later the maximal heart rate declines. This decline may be due to altitude-induced increase in activity of the parasympathetic system. The decrease in maximal heart rate may be a beneficial adaptation to limit oxygen consumption.


An individual's initial response to the lowered oxygen tension at altitude is to increase ventilation, by increasing the rate and volume of breaths. This phenomenon, the hypoxic ventilatory response, varies between individuals. Clinical studies have shown that those individuals with a history of AMS have a diminished ventilatory response to simulated altitude exposure, as manifest by lower minute ventilation and higher arterial carbon dioxide, despite low transcutaneous oxygen saturation. In contrast, those who remain asymptomatic upon acute exposure to altitude have a high hypoxic ventilatory response. The mechanism for this process remains unclear.

As extremes of altitude are reached, the normal lung faces additional impediments in transferring oxygen to the blood. A non-uniform pulmonary arterial vasoconstriction has been demonstrated by using scintigraphy scanning with radiolabeled particles to evaluate the relationship of lung ventilation with pulmonary perfusion. This effect becomes apparent at 3,000 meters. Increasing exercise at this same altitude is also associated with an increasing limitation for the diffusion of oxygen across the alveolar-capillary membrane. At an elevation of 3,900 meters, the unacclimatized individual consumes more oxygen with the increased work of breathing than is gained by that additional ventilation.

There are clear pulmonary conditioning benefits from exercise at intermediate altitude. A greater metabolic efficiency is suggested by a 20% reduction in an individual's oxygen utilization with the same maximal exercise upon return to sea level after intermediate altitude conditioning. Hemoglobin saturation is achieved with lower partial pressures of oxygen and blood levels of 2,3-diphosphoglycerate are elevated after intermediate altitude conditioning. The ability of hemoglobin to carry oxygen to the tissues is further enhanced by the increase in the number of red blood cells.


Conditioning at intermediate altitudes results in increased buffering capacity of muscle, increased capillary supply to muscle, and a substantial improvement in aerobic capacity. At extreme altitudes (over 5,000 meters) there is a progressive decrease in muscle fiber size and oxidative enzyme activity. Anaerobic capacity is usually unaltered until altitude exceeds 5,500 meters.


Despite fatigue, travelers to altitude often have unrestful sleep because of diminished stage-3, stage-4, and rapid eye-movement sleep. In addition to a diminished quality of sleep, many individuals exhibit periodic breathing at intermediate altitudes, and all do at altitudes over 6,300 meters. Periodic breathing, waxing and waning respirations with periods of apnea, interferes with the already suboptimal arterial oxygenation in the hypobaric environment to produce cycles of even more profound arterial oxygen desaturation. Periodic breathing occurs during 24% of all sleep at 2,440 meters. Lastly, sleep at altitude is characterized by frequent wakening. All of these produce an unsatisfying sleep and contribute to daytime fatigue.

As with the other symptoms of AMS at intermediate altitude, sleep can be expected to return to normal with acclimatization. Sleep at very high altitude will remain persistently disturbed.


A diuresis takes place with loss of water and sodium during the body's attempt to acclimatize to altitude. This places the individual at risk for dehydration, especially when the individual is involved in maximal exercise.

This diuresis is a component of a successful adaptation to altitude. Acute mountain sickness, an unsuccessful adaptation, is characterized by a diminished diuresis, with fluids that are normally in the plasma volume moving into the cells and interstitium, resulting in facial and extremity edema.

Intermediate altitude conditioning commonly involves exposure to a dry and cool atmosphere. A large amount of body water can be lost that will not be apparent to the exercising traveler. Whether symptoms of AMS are present or not, drinking increased volume of fluids is recommended to prevent dehydration, especially with exercise.


Nausea and anorexia are common symptoms of AMS at intermediate altitude. Because extra fluid intake is important to replace the fluid loss from high-altitude diuresis, inability to drink and additional losses from vomiting may worsen and prolong the illness. A high-carbohydrate diet may be beneficial, and a low-salt diet may reduce tissue edema. A liquid carbohydrate diet may be easier to tolerate at first exposure to altitude. Because individuals with low iron stores are unable to increase their red cell mass in acclimatization, the diet should be supplemented with iron for those at risk, particularly menstruating females.


Headache, ranging from subtle to incapacitating, is often the first and most common symptom of AMS. The pain tends to be bilateral and throbbing in quality. It is worse in the morning hours and is exacerbated by strenuous exercise. Individuals with a history of migraine headaches are more likely to develop the headache of AMS. The headaches may be caused by a benign cerebral vasodilatation in response to hypoxia. Acetaminophen, aspirin or ibuprofen may be used along with rest and fluids to ease the headache. Resolution of the headache occurs with acclimatization to intermediate altitude.

At very high altitudes, headache may be the first warning sign of cerebral edema. This potentially fatal complication is rarely seen at intermediate altitudes and is associated with changes in the level of consciousness and disturbances in fine motor control and balance. It is treatable only with rapid descent.

At very high altitudes, individuals can experience hostile behavior changes, with thoughts of paranoia, depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsiveness predominating. Those at intermediate altitudes do not experience any behavior changes consistent with increased aggressiveness. Feelings of diminished vigor, weariness, and increased sleepiness are commonly experienced at intermediate altitudes.

Alcohol, Sedatives, Tobacco

Alcohol can impair the altitude acclimatization process in a variety of ways. Alcohol acts as a diuretic and will exacerbate the dehydration seen at altitude. Alcohol can also impair judgment and depress respiration. Similarly, sedative and hypnotic agents impair the sleep-related respiratory cycle. While they may be used by the uninformed altitude traveler to improve the poor quality of sleep that is commonly experienced, the consequence of their ingestion is the further reduction in arterial oxygen saturation during sleep cycling. Furthermore, the type of sleep induced by alcohol and many of the hypnotic agents is not a satisfying, restful sleep.

Tobacco poses a number of long-term threats to the individual. A short-term effect of tobacco exposure on the traveler to altitude is the accumulation of carbon monoxide. This toxic gas is present in tobacco smoke and poisons the binding site of hemoglobin for oxygen. At the cellular level, carbon monoxide prevents the utilization of oxygen in cellular respiration.

Prevention and Treatment of Acute Mountain Sickness

Travelers from low elevations who must compete in athletic events at higher altitudes should be aware that the effects of AMS will seriously impair their performance. Their feeling of well-being and ability to remain fit will be compromised. They must allow adequate time for acclimatization. Their acclimatization will occur more rapidly and with fewer symptoms if several recommendations are followed. A slow ascent to altitude, as can be achieved by driving rather than flying to the destination, is associated with milder symptoms. The rate of ascent should be no more than 300 meters a day when above 3,000 meters. Sojourning for a couple of days at an altitude intermediate between the destination altitude and the home altitude is also associated with milder symptoms. After arrival at the destination altitude, heavy exertion should be avoided during the first two days. The traveler should drink plenty of liquids to maintain hydration and eat a high carbohydrate diet. Tobacco, alcohol, and sedative agents must be avoided.

If a slow acclimatization is impossible, several medications have shown promise in the prevention or amelioration of AMS. Acetazolamide is a carbonic-anhydrase inhibitor, which creates a metabolic acidosis due to a renal loss of bicarbonate and an inhibition of red blood cell enzymes with a retention of carbon dioxide. If acetazolamide is taken daily, starting three days before reaching altitude, more than just the overt symptoms of AMS are reduced. The periodic breathing of sleep is reduced, satisfaction of sleep is increased, exercise performance is improved, and higher altitudes can be tolerated.

Dexamethasone is a catabolic steroid that is effective in reducing vasogenic cerebral edema. It has been found to reduce the symptoms of AMS with exposure to very high altitudes. Nifedipine, a calcium-channel blocker, may prevent the pulmonary problems seen at very high altitudes. The usefulness of these two agents with intermediate altitude exposure is unclear.

At intermediate altitudes, AMS is very unlikely to progress to the severe illness seen at very high elevations. If serious illness does occur, descent remains the only definitive intervention. A dramatic improvement can occur with as little as a 300-meter descent. The natural history of intermediate altitude AMS is improvement within 3-5 days. If the symptoms are very uncomfortable, or if they interfere with normal activities, improvement can occur with the administration of supplemental oxygen, oral or intravenous rehydration, rest, and treatment with either acetazolamide or dexamethasone.


1. Consolazio, C.F., L.O. Matoush, H.L. Johnson, et al.: Effects of high carbohydrate diets on performance and clinical symptomatology after rapid ascent to high altitude. Fed Proc 28: 937, 1969.

2. Cymerman A, J.T. Reeves, S.R. Sutton, et al.: Operation Everest II: maximal oxygen uptake at extreme altitude. J Appl. Physiol. 66: 2446-2453, 1989.

3. Gale GE, J.R. Torre-Bueno, R.E. Moon, et al.: Ventilation-perfusion inequality in humans during exercise at sea level and simulated altitude. J. Appl. Physiol. 58: 978-988, 1985.

4. Green, H.J. Muscular adaptations at extreme altitude: metabolic implications during exercise. Int J Sports Med 13: S163-S165,1992.

5. Hoppler, H. and D. Desplanches: Muscle structural modifications in hypoxia. Int J Sports Med 13: S166-S168, 1992.

6. Mairbaurl H, W. Schobersberger, E. Humpeler, et al. Beneficial effects of exercising at moderate altitude on red cell oxygen transport and on exercise performance. Pflugers Archiv 406: 594-599, 1986.

7. Mizuno, M., C. Juel, T. Bro-Rasmussen, et al. Limb skeletal muscle adaptation in athletes after training at altitude. J Appl Physiol 68: 496-502, 1990.

8. Moore, L.G., G.L. Harrison, R.E. McCullough, et al. Low acute hypoxic ventilatory response and hypoxic depression in acute altitude sickness. J Appl Physiol 60: 1407-1412, 1986.

9. Suarez J, J.K. Alexander, C.S. Houston. Enhanced left ventricular systolic performance at high altitude during Operation Everest II. Am J Cardiol 60: 137-142, 1987.

newseditor=AT=sportsci.org · webmaster=AT=sportsci.org · Encyc Home · Sportsci Home · ©1998
Edited and webmastered by Will Hopkins
Last updated 13 July 1998