Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness deters many people from visiting mountaintops. This is unfortunate, since there are few things as beautiful as the view from the top of a mountain! Fortunately, it is more than possible to reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness, or even eliminate them!

What causes altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness is also known as acute mountain sickness or hypobaropathy. This condition comes as a result of not obtaining enough oxygen at high altitudes. It is a very common condition, especially with people who live at closer to sea level and are not used to spending time in high altitude areas. The causes of altitude sickness are still not completely understood, although thin air and lower oxygen levels do play a role in the condition.

Who gets altitude sickness?

It is impossible to tell who will get altitude sickness and who won’t. A common myth is that people who are not physically fit are more likely to get altitude sickness. It is true that athletic people who are prone to altitude sickness tend to get over it at a faster rate than those who are not physically fit, but all athletic levels are equally likely to suffer from altitude sickness. Other factors such as gender and age have no effect on whether or not a person will get altitude sickness.

What are the symptoms of altitude sickness?

Symptoms of milder versions of altitude sickness vary from person to person, and may include one or more of the following:

-Throbbing headache
-Lack of appetite
-Rapid heartbeat, or fluttering
-Shortness of breath (especially following physically demanding activities)
-Swelling of the hands and feet

More severe versions of altitude sickness can include all of the symptoms listed above, as well as:

-Swelling of the brain
-Difficulty breathing
-Loss of consciousness
-Fluid in the lungs
-Dry coughing
-Difficulty walking

Is it possible to prevent altitude sickness?

It is not always possible to completely prevent altitude sickness for some people, but taking certain steps can lessen the severity of the altitude sickness. The most common method of warding off altitude sickness is known as altitude acclimatization. Hikers, campers and mountain climbers frequently use altitude acclimatization to adjust to high altitudes and prevent severe symptoms of altitude sickness. This process consists of slowly increasing the altitude, so as not to shock the system. Usually, this means beginning at an altitude that is higher than what you are used to, but not so high that you will feel sick. For most people, the beginning altitude in altitude acclimatization will be somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 feet. After spending a day or two at this altitude, you should be ready to move to an altitude of 9,000 to 10,000 feet. At this point, you should set up a base camp around 10,000 feet, which you’ll stay at for several days. During this time, you should venture between 500 and 1000 feet higher in altitude for a short amount of time, and then return to the base camp to sleep. After a few days of this, you will move your base camp to 11,000 feet and practice hiking to 12,000 feet but sleeping at 11,000 feet. Every two days you should move your base camp to an altitude of no more than 1,000 feet higher than where you slept the night before. Continue this process until you reach the altitude of your destination.

Another popular method of preventing altitude sickness is drinking high levels of water prior to and during altitude acclimatization. It is best to begin increasing water intake at least seven days before venturing into higher altitudes.

Some people who suffer from more severe types of altitude sickness have successfully prevented severe symptoms by taking the drug Acetazolamide. The use of this drug for altitude sickness is not advisable unless you suffer extremely severe symptoms or are planning on rapidly ascending to an area of high altitude.

How can altitude sickness be treated?

The only 100% effective way to treat altitude sickness is to move to an area of lower altitude. This is the safest method of treatment and the most reliable, since the symptoms typically appear as soon as the sufferer has descended to a lower area.