High altitude headache

A type of headache experienced at high elevations

What is high altitude headache?

Many people who climb high elevations get high altitude headache. About 1 in 4 people who climb high altitudes experience high altitude headache.

High altitude headache is also known as acute mountain sickness. You don’t need to have a previous history of high altitude headache to get it as it can happen to you even if you’ve never had it before. High altitude headaches can be intense in people who have a history of getting migraine. Your chances of getting high altitude headache are not affected by your age, sex or physical fitness.


A mild headache affecting both sides of the head usually starts as you begin to reach high elevation of about 8500 feet and this gets worse as you climb higher, bend over, cough or exert yourself. You may also experience the following symptoms: feeling tired and weak, dizzy, sick, shortness of breath and problem with sleeping at night.

If you are prone to migraine or have a family history of migraine changes in altitude such as flying, can trigger your migraine. High altitudes and weather changes can trigger migraine attacks in some people. If you are flying and prone to migraine, it is important that you carry your painkillers and anti-sickness medication with you, so that you can treat an attack.

What causes high altitude headache?

It’s not clear what causes high altitude headaches. At high elevation there is usually less oxygen in the air and your body may not get enough to nourish all your body tissues. This condition is called hypoxia. If you are planning of climbing higher elevation it is important that you do this gradually to enable your body get used to the climate.

Treatment options for high altitude headache

High altitude headache can be treated with over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Anti-sickness medication can help if you feel sick (nausea). Make sure that you drink enough water to stay hydrated.

Make sure that you treat symptoms of high altitude headache and continue your journey only when you feel you have fully recovered. If your symptoms don’t improve or get worse you should seek medical advice. High altitude headache can lead to a serious medical emergency if it is left untreated.

How can you prevent high altitude headache?

It takes time for your body to get used to climbing high altitudes. If you are climbing a height of more than 8500 feet it is advisable to go up slowly and not climb more than 1600 feet a day. It is important to stop and take a rest. You should drink plenty of water and eat well. Eating lots of carbohydrate will help you too. Avoid smoking and drinking alcohol. If you are on medication you should speak to your doctor about your planned trip.