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Why You Should Be Aware of Reverse (High to Low) Altitude Sickness?

Have you ever felt ill when returning to sea level from an area of high altitude?

This may also occur after indulging in strenuous activities such as mountain climbing. When you feel like you lack sufficient oxygen in such environments, this is associated with a condition known as Altitude Sickness.

However, in peculiar situations, the reverse may occur and this is referred to as Reverse Altitude Sickness.

When you move from a high altitude to a low altitude, your blood pressure is supposed to normalize. The oxygen in your body should also be evenly distributed. Sometimes, like clockwork, the body refuses to respond to environmental changes, especially if you have been at a high altitude for a long time.

When some people transition to an area with lower altitude, they have the same Altitude Sickness symptoms due to increasing blood pressure.

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What is Reverse (high to low) Altitude Sickness?

As a human being, you are prone to many health conditions. You may expect people who have grown up in high altitude areas to feel better physically when they descend to sea level but this is not the case with everyone.

Reverse (high to low) Altitude Sickness is a long-existing condition that results from changes in altitude and saturation of oxygen in the atmosphere.

This condition causes symptoms such as headaches (in severe cases migraines), loss of appetite and insomnia.

If you are used to being in higher altitudes and transitioning quickly to places of lower altitude, then you are bound to experience Reverse Altitude Sickness.

For instance, if you have been living near the peak of a mountain, it only makes sense for you to be comfortable at higher altitudes.

A change of environment will take a lot of getting used to. Thus, your body will not function normally.

The beginning of Reverse Altitude Sickness and Its Causes

Reverse Altitude Sickness is caused by the thinning of blood and lack of oxygen in the body.

When you are used to high altitudes, and you go lower than usual, your body does not get enough oxygen and you consequently you begin to breathe faster than usual.

This spikes up your blood pressure. The sickness begins when you are close to at 14,000 feet of elevation and you are descending faster without giving your body enough time to rest.

This results in the following symptoms:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Frequent urination

These symptoms occur due to the fact that your body is struggling to adapt to a low altitude.

Reverse Altitude Sickness does not occur in everyone, in fact, it only tends to recur in those who have a previous history of the sickness.

When the symptoms are not serious, you are likely to experience mild symptoms.

However, in severe cases, Reverse (high to low) Altitude sickness is referred to as Low Altitude Cerebral Edema. This is Altitude Sickness in its extremity and the following symptoms are exhibited:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Lack of proper breathing
  • Chest tightness and/or fullness
  • Rattling and gurgling sounds when breathing
  • Heavy frothy coughs
  • Gray/blue lips and fingernails

Who is Prone to Reverse Altitude Sickness?

The type of Reverse Altitude Sickness varies from person to person.

If you travel to a latitude of below 2500m, you may be at the risk of suffering from the sickness as your body may fail to respond in the right way.

However, the symptoms are not evident unless you consistently remain at that specific latitude for a long time.

Unfortunately, Reverse Altitude Sickness is not predictable and it is hard to determine who will be affected.

If you have had a history of the condition in the past without getting treatment, it may be aggravated even faster the next time you are in a low latitude environment.

On lower altitude, you are always at higher risk of developing the condition because you descend faster.

It is important to understand that this does not occur in everyone. These are those who feel perfectly fine regardless of the environment that they are in.

Older people tend to be less affected by this condition. This may be because they already understand the concept of traveling to low-latitude environments.

Is Altitude Sickness Dangerous?

As any other condition, Reverse Altitude Sickness is dangerous, especially in its severe form.

When the body faces a lack of oxygen and increase in blood pressure, fluid may leak through the blood vessels and into the brain and this may result in swelling.

If the condition is left untreated, it may cause death. Therefore, when the symptoms are experienced, the patient should be ascended by 2,000 feet immediately.

Patients may also develop Cyanosis and heaviness in breathing, which makes them feel exhausted and weak. This also results in death.

Is Reverse (high to low) Altitude Sickness Preventable?

The ultimate way to prevent this condition is by giving your body time to adjust. It is important to pace yourself well in order to ensure that you do not overwork or over-excite your body.

Gradual changes often reduce the chances of developing any form of Altitude Sickness. We are all different, therefore, we adapt to the environment at different rates.

The next time you are in a sea level environment, put these guidelines to practice to ensure that you do not get affected by the change in altitude:

  • Stay Hydrated
    You should always keep yourself hydrated with 4 to 6 liters of water in a day. It is not advisable to smoke or consume alcohol when transitioning from high altitude places.
  • Get Enough Sleep
    As sleep is an important part of the journey, do not descend below 300 meters at night to ensure that your body is well-rested. However, this only applies to a latitude of below 3,000 meters.
  • Stick To a Low-Calorie Diet
    Low-calorie diets are advised when going to a low latitude environment. This is because they will give you the energy that you need to adjust to the environment.
  • Stay at Sea Level
    If you have recurring Reverse Altitude Sickness, always learn to stay at the sea level environment until the symptoms go away completely. However, if they worsen, you may take tranquilizers or sleeping pills.

When To Call the Doctor?

If your symptoms are persistent, it is important to consult your doctor before visiting a low latitude environment. Preventive drugs such as Acetazolamide and Dexamethasone assist keeping the condition in check and stabilizing your flow patterns, especially in the lungs.

Before venturing into any adventure, you should be conversant with the right information about Reverse Altitude Sickness. Acclimatize your body to the changing latitude. Always descend gradually in order to give yourself enough time to adjust.

Treatment of reverse altitude sickness

When traveling to a low altitude location, the basic rule of thumb is to move to a higher altitude if you start experiencing any of the Altitude Sickness symptoms.

Otherwise, the lower you go, the more fatal they can be.

Getting a good amount of rest is an important part of the treatment. Combining this with Acetazolamide drug will help you find balance and better-breathing.

Nifedipine and Dexamethasone are drugs that decrease brain swelling which may result due to severe symptoms.

When you are at a lower latitude for the first time, supplemental oxygen is also important. If the symptoms worsen, you should always call a doctor to attend to you immediately.

Whether normal or reversed, Altitude sickness is a treatable condition.

There are many people who have died because of neglecting it. However, you do not have to live your life in fear of high and low altitudes, you can always take control at all times.

What Pills Are Used To Curb The Condition?

Reverse Altitude Condition is not irrevesible. The following pills work against the condition and get you back to normal in the shortest time:

  • Acetazolamide corrects all your breathing problems and ensures that oxygen is evenly distributed throughout your body. Thisdrug has been known to save many lives in severe breathing problems.
  • Dexamethasone reduces the swelling of the brain when Reverse Altitude Sickness causes edema.
  • For mild headaches, Aspirin will offer relief.

Patients may also use recommended types of blood pressure medicines and lung inhalers. This can only be recommended by a certified physician.

In case you have certain medical conditions or are under a different set of medication, always consult to ensure that the Altitude Sickness pills are safe to consume.

Patients with lung or heart disease need constant monitoring because the combination of these diseases with elevated blood pressure or lack of oygen may be fatal.

Most people are able to bounce back from an acute case of Reversible Altitude Sickness. When they get back to higher altitude environments, the symptoms often subside in a short time.

If you are not sure about your symptoms or the condition in general, you should speak to a doctor.

If you give your body sufficient time, red blood cells will be produced when you spend a lot of time at sea level and this will compensate for your blood thinning and lack of oxygen anytime you visit these atmospheres.



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Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 7 comments
Loreen - October 7, 2016

Yes, Reverse Altitude Sickness does happen. I went to above 8,000′ in Colorado for 4+ months and struggled with High Altitude sickness for 2 weeks. Returning to Sea Level within 7 days, I am now experiencing the same symptoms. LOTS of water helps on either end. I am 71, very active female, rarely get sick. This is an entirely different experience; and, not very pleasant.

I was skeptical when I heard about Reverse Altitude sickness ~ it happens.

Mike - March 20, 2018

I get this also, only it’s from staying at my cabin at 5000 feet for a few days then returning home to sea level in an hour. It doesn’t always happen, but I get headaches and some blood in my tissue when I blow my nose. You don’t feel yourself for a day or two.

Dixie - April 9, 2018

I go to colorad Every June thru Oct. Several years ago my family noticed I get very ill on the third day I arrive back from driving back from. 9000ft to sea level.it starts on the thrift day and last for 2 n half days .I am seriously sick . Non stop nausea,confusion, fatigue,sinus pressure and strange taste, can’t get out of bed and no food at all.this does not happen at all if I fly home….I started taking acedazolamide and that helped curb the condition.ut I still had some head issues. The whole thing is very Scarry. This will be the last year I go up unless I only fly home. Thank you so much for the info. Ive had five years to finally figured this out…. I guess this will be my last year to go…..
.too serious to risk it.

Jedidah - April 28, 2018

Hello I travelled from Kenya to newyork America and the whole month have been sick my stomach and abdomen very painful even walking is a problem.how can you help me

Shrey Singh - July 22, 2018

I had a cousin who traveled to Leh Ladakh at 3500m from sea level by road and then after the gruesome journey and climatization, returned via a flight to Delhi, Drove Home for 5 hours, had dinner and talks with family, went to sleep, never to wake again. He was sleeping alone in his room and was found dead in the morning, body turned blue. The doctor said it was a heart failure. Could this be the reason for his death? He was only 21. Reverse Altitude Sickness?

Summer - October 21, 2018

Had a small experience yesterday on Mt Whitney, CA. The trailhead is 8000ft and summit 14,500ft. I live at 6000ft and train between 6000-10000ft on a regular basis. From trailhead to summit is 11mi. I got to the top in 3hr40mins and was fine, but when I got back down to about 12,800ft or so, I took off my day pack to put my micro spikes away, suddenly I felt horrible and extremely nauseated, hardly able to even walk. I slowly kept going down and it finally went away. I was a little nervous bc I’ve only ever had that happen in the past going up, not down, and I was alone:/ But the blood pressure does make some sense and I don’t think mine was catching up to the change in altitude, and it happend after taking off my pack…. Thanks for your blog.

Tracy B - October 27, 2018

I was just in Cusco, Peru for 4 days, as well as a few tours above Cusco. First day I did nothing but relax. Then two days I pushed myself physically. Fourth day I took the train to Machu Picchu (4000 ft lower). On the ride down I became nauseous and extremely fatigued. By the morning my whole hurt like a bad flu & slept most the day & next day. No headache, just a bit of pressure feeling. I’m now wondering if my symptoms are of this reverse-altitude sickness. I can’t imaging WHY my body is doing this, as I’m normally a healthy female.


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