Altitude and flight medicine

Millions of people worldwide travel to the mountains for their holidays or for professional reasons. Decreasing barometric pressure at higher altitudes leads to a reduction of oxygen. Depending on the elevation and the susceptibility of the affected person, this can also affect one's health. These effects are collectively known as altitude sickness. The most common severe altitude illnesses include acute mountain sickness, cerebral edema and high-altitude pulmonary edema.

Symptoms at high altitudes

Symptoms of altitude sickness arise starting from altitudes of 2,500 meters depending on the rate of ascent, physical exertion and individual susceptibility. Possible symptoms of acute mountain sickness include headaches, weakness, blurred vision, unsteadiness, nausea and vomiting. Pronounced sleep disturbances are also frequently reported.

In cases of high-altitude pulmonary edema, decreased physical capacity, shortness of breath and coughing are the most common symptoms. This illness can lead to a life-threatening shortage of oxygen if the person concerned does not descend to lower altitudes or receive oxygen and medication. Altitude cerebral edema leads to impaired locomotor coordination, the inability to walk, a state of confusion and a progressive disturbance of consciousness which can be lethal.

Advisory service for mountain climbers

Have you ever experienced signs of acute mountain sickness or are you planning a high-altitude tour? The risks can be minimized through careful preparation and planning for the climb, having sufficient time to adapt (acclimatization) and possibly with preventive drug therapy. People with cardiovascular or lung diseases are examined specifically in terms of possible problems at high altitudes.

Advisory service for air travelers

In commercial aircraft, a minimum cabin pressure equivalent to an altitude of 2,500 meters is guaranteed. Adverse effects are usually minimal in healthy individuals. Nevertheless, problems can arise due to rapid changes in pressure, particularly when landing. The most common are pressure equalization disorders of the middle ear that cause severe ear pain. Decongestant nasal drops and the performance of regular pressure equalization measures can provide relief.

Air travel can cause severe shortness of breath in individuals with a preexisting lung condition. Particularly serious are pressure equalization problems in the lungs and chest, such as the presence of a pneumothorax (accumulation of air between the lung and chest wall) or pulmonary emphysema. People with lung diseases can also fly thanks to specialized measures such as administered oxygen or assisted ventilation during the flight. Special preparations are necessary, including obtaining a medical clearance certificate from a doctor.

Consultation Altitude and Flight Medicine
SWISS Airlines Medical Clearance Form (in German)
Current altitude physiology research for lung disease

Last update: 01.06.2017 | Person responsible:
Professor Malcolm Kohler, MD