How Do I Treat High-Altitude Sickness?

Hiker on the Longs Peak trail

Hiker on the Longs Peak trail

Welcome to the high country: Rocky Mountain National Park starts at the already-lofty elevation of 7,840 feet (at Beaver Meadows) and extends all the way up to 14,259 feet at the summit of Longs Peak.

Ever heard references to the “thin air” found in the mountains? That’s a nod to the reduced levels of oxygen saturation at high elevations: At 14,000 feet, only 61 percent of the oxygen you’d find at sea level is available.

Lower oxygen levels at elevation have several effects on the body: Breathing and heart rate increase as your body works harder to take in oxygen, and physical activity leaves you more winded than you’re used to at home.

You may have trouble sleeping at first. And some people experience a series of symptoms (headaches, fatigue, nausea) that add up to acute mountain sickness, or AMS. It's the most common type of altitude sickness and feels similar to having a hangover. You may not show symptoms until hours or a couple of days after you've been at elevation. Luckily, the body adapts to life at high elevation quickly, a process called acclimatization (if you move to a mountain town, for example, your body will produce extra red blood cells to carry more oxygen).

According to Web MD's website, "Altitude sickness can affect your lungs and brain. When this happens, symptoms include being confused, not being able to walk straight (ataxia), feeling faint, and having blue or gray lips or fingernails. When you breathe, you may hear a sound like a paper bag being crumpled. These symptoms mean the condition is severe." This is known as high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), in which fluid builds up within the brain. Should you experience these symptoms, seek treatment from a doctor.

Preventing Altitude Sickness

The best way to smooth your own transition on a trip to the high country is to take it slow: Spend a day or two between 5,000 and 7,000 feet before you go higher, and drink lots of water to prevent dehydration. Avoid alcohol and eat a high-carbohydrate diet. If possible, try to sleep at a lower elevation.

Treating Altitude Sickness

If you do develop AMS, the first thing to do is stop and descend to a lower elevation. A drop in 1,000 feet of elevation will help considerably. Ibuprofen and rest will help. Do not use sleeping pills or other depressants because they can suppress breathing.


Lightening storm in the mountains

How Do I Stay Safe from Lightning at High Elevations?

Thunderstorms storms in the park have caused injury and even death. Read our tips for staying safe from lightening when hiking in high altitude.

Dog in the mountains

Can I Bring My Pet to Rocky Mountain National Park?

Dogs are prohibited on all trails and in the backcountry. Leashed dog are allowed at parking lots, roadside areas, picnic areas, and campgrounds.

Entrance Sign to Rocky Mountain National Park

Which Entrance Should I Take into Rocky Mountain National Park?

To access the park, there are four entrances, three on the park’s east side and one on the west. Here's how to pick your approach

The Loch in Rocky Mountain National Park

What to Pack for Your Rocky Mountain National Park Vacation

How do you pack for a place where temperatures can fluctuate 35 degrees in one day? Here are the top 14 items to bring to the park.

Sunset at Lily Lake

Lily Lake High-hazard Dam Receiving Repairs

Lily Lake, a popular hiking and fishing destination on Colorado's Highway 7 (part of the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway), is beginning repair on a dam this week that was rated "high-hazard" by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Car driving on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park in autumn

When is Trail Ridge Road Open?

The road connects east amd west sides of the park and is open from the end of May through October, weather permitting.

Map showing where is Rocky Mountain National Park

Where is Rocky Mountain National Park?

Head for northeast Colorado. The park is flanked by Estes Park on the east and Grand Lake on the west.

Mummy Range from the Alpine Visitors Center in Rocky Mountain National Park

Temperatures Change as You Go Higher in Elevation

Don't make a rookie mistake by dressing for temps in Denver, then heading up Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain Park. The higher you go, the colder it gets.

Wild Basin entrance station at Rocky Mountain National Park

Entrance Fees and Where to Get Your National Park Pass

Want to take in the sweeping beauty of Longs Peak or the awe-inspiring view of Painted Wall? Here are the many options for national park entrance fees.