You can get altitude sickness when you go up quickly, especially if it’s more than 2,400 meters. The oxygen level remains the same at altitude. However, as you go higher, the atmospheric pressure drops, so the oxygen inhaled is less. You’ll need some time to adjust to high altitude if you’re not used to it.
Fortunately, most people don’t get altitude sickness below 2,400 meters. To be more precise, up to about 1,500 meters above sea level, most people won’t notice any difference. If you’re not used to high altitudes, it will be harder for you to breathe between 1,500 meters and 2,400 meters.
Generally, people who live at sea level (think New York or London) are more susceptible to altitude sickness than those who live at high altitudes (think Colorado, Mexico City, and Johannesburg). That’s because people who live at high altitudes are already used to the pressure.
There are a few steps you should take before you go to high altitude if you’ve never been there before to ensure your safety and enjoyment. Knowledge and preparation can make the difference between a safe and enjoyable trek (or walk) at altitude, or a complete headache that may lead to a medical evacuation.
In this article, we’ll explore whether altitude sickness is possible in Switzerland and what you can do to avoid it.
Can you get altitude sickness in Switzerland?
Most of the world’s top destinations are almost at sea level. Paris is 28 meters above sea level, New York is 10 meters, and Lisbon is practically at sea level at 2 meters.
Switzerland is generally a high country, but not everywhere is higher than 2,000 meters. Zurich is only 408 meters high, Geneva is 370 meters high, and Basel is 244 meters high. The Swiss Alps are higher, though. Meanwhile, Zermatt is 1,608 meters above sea level and St. Moritz is 1,822 meters.
At an altitude of about 2,400 meters and above, altitude sickness can strike, although most people won’t experience it.
All non-acclimated travelers, including children, are potentially at risk for altitude sickness, which is influenced by exercise level, rate of ascent, altitude reached, humidity, oxygen, and atmospheric pressure, air, and individual sensitivity.
There are no specific factors such as age, sex, or physical condition that correlate with susceptibility to altitude sickness. Some people get it and some people don’t, and some people are more susceptible than others.Rick Curtis, Director, Outdoor Action Program
Altitude and Dehydration
Altitude, dry air, cold, and insufficient fluid intake can lead to dehydration, which can worsen altitude disturbance. Dehydration per se is more common at high altitudes and may exacerbate altitude sickness symptoms.
When traveling to high-altitude areas, be on the lookout for symptoms and allow yourself plenty of time to acclimate. While ascending to higher altitudes, our bodies need time to adjust.
Altitude Sickness or Acute Mountain Sickness
When we talk about Altitude Sickness, we mean Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).
Acute mountain sickness (AMS) causes the following issues:
- loss of appetite
- sleep disturbances
Acute mountain sickness can start two hours after you reach maximum altitude. It usually happens six to 12 hours after your climb.
Travelers that don’t rest and insist on hiking or skiing at the first signs of altitude sickness are at the highest risk of developing HACE or HAPE.
High-altitude Cerebral Edema
HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema) is when the brain swells from the physiological effects of traveling to high altitudes. It usually occurs in patients with acute mountain sickness and involves nausea, disorientation, and lethargy. If you’re ascending to a high altitude and your body doesn’t acclimate, you can get it.
HACE symptoms are similar to altitude sickness; however, patients will also experience extreme lethargy, confusion, drowsiness, and ataxia.
HACE happens to 0.5% to 1% of people who climb or trek between 4,000 meters and 5,000 meters. It typically does not occur until an individual spends 48 hours at an altitude of 4,000 meters. Some expeditions have had up to 30% of their members get it. In rare cases, it has developed as low as 2,500 meters.
High-altitude Pulmonary Edema
In addition to HACE, HAPE (High-altitude pulmonary edema) is a life-threatening condition that should be treated immediately because it can be fatal if left untreated. As the name suggests, high-altitude pulmonary edema is a life-threatening form of non-cardiogenic pulmonary edema that occurs at altitudes typically above 2,500 meters (8,200 ft). However, cases have also been reported between 1,500 and 2,500 meters.
Altitude Sickness in Switzerland
Ski resorts in Switzerland are usually at elevations of 2,000 to 3,000 meters. At 3,000 meters, the partial pressure of oxygen is about 70% of the partial pressure at sea level. At higher altitudes, the contraction of oxygen causes the body’s capillaries to expand and fluid to leak before acclimatization. High altitudes may be severe enough for some people to end up in the ER if they are not careful.
You can definitely get altitude sickness in Switzerland. But altitude sickness is usually preventable by climbing or trekking gradually and taking frequent rest days.
If you’re staying in high-altitude places like St. Moritz and Zermatt and your body isn’t used to it, why not add a rest day somewhere with lower altitude in the days before? It’s a good rule to sleep no higher than 300 meters per night and not ascend more than 1,000 meters per day.
If you develop headaches, confusion, disorientation, loss of consciousness, or nausea, especially at high altitudes, you should descend. Identifying symptoms early lets you reduce the level until you’re feeling fine.
Prevalence of Acute Mountain Sickness Study
There was a study published in the British Medical Journal entitled Prevalence of acute mountain sickness in the Swiss Alps. This study checked how common Acute Mountain Sickness is among people staying in different mountain huts at different altitudes. Severe headache, vomiting, dizziness, and tachypnoea were some of the symptoms and signs associated with acute mountain sickness.
The study noted that men and women seemed equally affected. It can strike anyone really.
It’s pretty clear from the study that the higher the altitude, the more prevalent acute mountain sickness is.
|Prevalence of Acute Mountain Sickness
In fact, more than half of the group suffered from Acute Mountain Sickness at more than 4,000 meters high. At 4,559 m 11 climbers presented with high-altitude pulmonary edema or cerebral edema, or both.
At moderately high altitudes, that are above 3,500 to 4,000 meters, acute mountain sickness is not uncommon. Subjects with severe headaches, vomiting, dizziness, and/or tachypnoea should descend immediately to lower altitudes.
9 Tips to Prevent Altitude Sickness
- Traveling in the mountains, the golden rule is to treat any headache, dizziness, or vomiting as altitude sickness until proven otherwise. Once you suspect that you have it, make steps to ensure that it won’t worsen.
- Make sure you understand what altitude sickness is before embarking on a mountain trek, especially in Valais where the mountains are high. You might also want to hire a guide with experience.
- Don’t drive straight to the Swiss Alps from the airport. Let your body adjust to the new environment by spending the night in one of the nearby cities.
- Poor pre-adaptation and a rapid rise to high altitudes can cause altitude sickness. You can reduce your risk of illness at high altitudes by giving your body time to adjust to the lack of oxygen.
- You shouldn’t climb more than 1,000 meters a day if you’re at risk of altitude sickness.
- If you feel bad at a height, don’t go any higher. Drop to a lower altitude of at least 300 meters if there’s no improvement.
- Don’t drink alcohol or take tranquilizers for the first few days. Also, make sure you drink enough fluids.
- HACE and HAPE, although extremely rare, can be fatal. Although statistics put its prevalence at up to 1% for those who climb between 4,000 and 5,000 meters, it can still happen. Be quick in descending if you suspect someone in the group has developed HACE or HAPE at high altitudes.
- Diamox (Acetazolamide) is the only altitude sickness cure that’s been proven to prevent altitude sickness and help your body adjust to high altitudes. You should take it if you expect to climb quickly over 3,000 meters high.
Final Words: Altitude Sickness in Switzerland
If you’re wondering if you can get altitude sickness in Switzerland, my answer is probably not unless you go way up in the Alps. If you’re staying in one of the Swiss cities or lower villages, you should be fine. You can also try higher mountains after a few days of arriving at 2,000 to 3,000 meters, and you’ll be fine.
If you go on a high-altitude route, especially one above 3,500 to 4,000 meters, then yes, you could get altitude sickness without proper acclimation. There’s a chance you’ll get headaches, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and sleep disturbances.
You won’t harm yourself if you don’t go higher. The chance of getting HACE or HAPE is very small (1% or less), but it can be deadly. So use caution when going up the mountains.
- Curtis, Rick. Outdoor Action Guide to High Altitude: Acclimatization and Illnesses. Princeton. Accessed 18 December 2021. http://www.princeton.edu/~oa/safety/altitude.html.
- Maggiorini M, Bühler B, Walter M, Oelz O. Prevalence of acute mountain sickness in the Swiss Alps. BMJ. 1990 Oct 13;301(6756):853-5. doi: 10.1136/bmj.301.6756.853. PMID: 2282425; PMCID: PMC1663993. Accessed 18 December 2021. https://www.bmj.com/content/301/6756/853.
- Is Switzerland Safe? Switzerland One of the Safest Worldwide
- Swiss Alps – The Ultimate Guide
- Top 15 Highest Ski Resorts in Switzerland
Darla Uhl is the owner of TouringSwitzerland.com. Her home is in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Having lived almost 20 years in Switzerland, she's traveled extensively all over the country.
Darla's favorite regions to visit in Switzerland include Engadin, Lake Geneva, Bernese Oberland, Ticino, and Valais. She loves spending time with her family, hiking, visiting museums, and reading books.