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Diagnosis

You must be able to recognize the early symptoms of altitude sickness, and you should watch carefully for symptoms when you are at risk because altitude illnesses can be life threatening.

If headache is your only symptom, you should stop climbing and take a mild pain reliever. If you have a headache that does not go away or if you have other symptoms that suggest acute mountain sickness, this illness can be diagnosed without tests.

High-altitude cerebral edema can make it difficult to walk a straight line, and can lead to changes in thinking, hallucinations or an unexplained change in personality. If a person has these symptoms at high altitude, you should assume that the person has high-altitude cerebral edema. A person with these symptoms should descend immediately and seek medical care. Once a person with high-altitude cerebral edema has been transported to a medical center, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan may be done to confirm the cause of the symptoms. An MRI can show brain swelling.

Recognizing high-altitude pulmonary edema can be difficult in its early stages because fatigue may be the only sign. Symptoms that should be of concern include difficulty exercising, dry cough, rapid heart rate (more than 100 beats per minute), and shortness of breath while resting. Listening to the lungs with a stethoscope may reveal a crackling noise with each breath. If blood oxygen levels were measured, they would be lower than expected for your altitude. X-rays may show signs of fluid filling one or more areas within the lungs, giving an appearance that is similar to pneumonia.

High-altitude retinal hemorrhage can be diagnosed by a doctor who examines the eye with a hand-held instrument called an ophthalmoscope.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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