Altitude Sickness – The Symptoms and Treatments
Altitude sickness, also known as Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS can occur to anyone at heights around 2,500m above sea level. But serious sickness occurs at higher altitudes of above 2,500m. It can happen to even physically fit people who are in a hurry to ascend heights. If you ascend up quickly, you are more likely to have altitude sickness than if you ascend slowly through road travel.
High altitudes refer to heights around 2,500 to 3,500m. But altitude sickness can occur even at a height between 1,500 and 2,500m. Some very popular examples of high altitudes are Cusco, Peru (about 3,300m) and La Paz, Bolivia (about 3,600m).
Symptoms of altitude sickness
You are likely to experience altitude sickness from six to twenty-four hours after you have reached the place of high altitude. If you are suffering from altitude sickness, then you will most likely feel:
• A headache
• Sick or vomit
• Irregular breathing when sleeping
• An increased heart rate
• Lack of appetite
• Difficulty in sleeping
All these symptoms usually start to relieve in about two days when your body gets used to the high altitude. But if your symptoms get worse, then it is better to descend to a lower altitude as soon as possible.
Serious cases of altitude sickness
Altitude sickness is very common but in some rare cases, it can lead to two serious medical conditions that can be fatal:
• High altitude cerebral oedema (HACE) – It is a condition in which excessive fluid collects in the brain and causes it to swell.
• High altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPE) – In this condition, fluid collects in the lungs.
Both these conditions can occur if you ascend above the height of 4,000m.
Factors leading to altitude sickness
There are certain factors that can trigger altitude sickness:
• If you are unfit
• If you rapidly ascend to high altitude
• If you had altitude sickness before
• If you have a lung infection
• Do strenuous activity or exercise at high altitude
If you have mild altitude sickness, it is better not to ascend further. In such a condition, you should:
- Take painkillers for headache
- Drink plenty of water
- Take medicines like cinnarizine (eg stugeron) or promethazine (eg avomine), which are very effective against dizziness and nausea.
But if the symptoms become sever, then inhaling oxygen is the best treatment. You can get more oxygen in the air you breathe if you descend by 500 to 1000m. You can also carry oxygen tanks or hyperbaric treatment with you. This is important because lack of oxygen is the main reason why people suffer from altitude sickness.
The best way to avoid altitude sickness for a climber’s initial journey is to stay away from a height of 8,000 feet or above.