Altitude Sickness And How You Can Combat It During High-Altitude Treks

What is Altitude Sickness?

If you’re a frequent hiker used to high-altitude treks, you must be familiar with the term ‘Altitude- Sickness’ . Altitude sickness refers to a condition that occurs when your body does not receive an adequate amount of oxygen. The problem generally occurs when you travel to higher altitudes with less air.

Altitude sickness affects about 30-50% of hikers opting for high-altitude treks. Anyone can fall victim to altitude sickness despite their sex, age, or physical endurance. While some people have difficulty starting from 2000m, altitude sickness normally kicks in at altitudes above 2600m.

Altitude sickness can be from mild to life-threatening depending upon the individual’s symptoms. You can treat mild complications by descending to a lower altitude and acclimatizing properly. Severe complications if left untreated can lead to coma or even death.

There are three variants of altitude sickness categorized as

AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness)

AMS is the mildest form of altitude-sickness that affects a majority of the hikers every year. The good news is that with proper acclimatization, you can treat it quickly. People typically experience symptoms such as headache, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, and occasional vomiting. Conditions usually resolve within 24 to 72 hours of proper acclimatization.

HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema)

HACE is a more advanced and threatening condition developed from AMS. If you leave AMS untreated, it can quickly grow into HACE. During HACE, there is a build-up of fluid in the brain which shows symptoms of headache, dizziness, blurry vision, and disorientation. HACE is quite rare, but life-threatening if not treated properly. The only way to treat it is to descend to a lower altitude where the air is adequate and taking appropriate medications.

HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema)

HAPE is the most dangerous condition of Altitude sickness. It involves the building up of fluid in the lungs, which can eventually lead to coma or death. It usually happens above the death zone, which is the 8000m mark. Mild symptoms can include a dry cough and shortness of breath, but more severe ones involve shortness of breath at rest, confusion, and fever. The only way to remedy HAPE is to descend or provide oxygen via oxygen chambers in severe conditions.

What are the Symptoms Of Altitude Sickness?

Symptoms range from mild to severe, depending on the condition of altitude sickness. However, the most common symptoms are:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and Vomiting
  • Lack of Appetite
  • Unexplained Fatigue
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sudden nocturnal dyspnea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Blurry vision

How To Fight Against Altitude Sickness?

Although altitude sickness is unpredictable and can affect any individual at higher altitudes, there are some ways to minimize the effects and eliminate altitude sickness for a better trekking experience.

Proper Acclimatization

One of the main mistakes trekkers usually do is ascend too quickly, which increases the chance of altitude sickness. Your body needs to get acclimatized to the surrounding air to function correctly.

Acclimatization is undoubtedly the best remedy to prevent altitude sickness. So separate a few days of your busy itinerary for acclimatization and ascend no more than 1600 feet per day.

Stay Hydrated

Staying hydrated is one of the crucial factors during significant treks. Not only does it help prevent altitude sickness, but also keeps your body fresh and energized. Higher altitude requires frequent water consumption.

Climb High, Sleep Low

It is one of the best ways to acclimate yourself to the surrounding climate and prevent altitude sickness. It is vital to climb high altitudes during the day to acclimatize but sleep at lower elevations to get adequate oxygen. Never sleep at heights where you feel symptoms of altitude sickness! Descent to lower altitudes to sleep in locations with thicker air.

Avoid Consumption Of Alcoholic Beverages and Caffeine

Avoid drinking alcoholic beverages as it can decrease the rate of breathing and cause dehydration. Caffeine also causes muscle dehydration, so it is best to avoid it during high-altitude treks.

Carry Ibuprofen and Diamox Tablets

Ibuprofen and Diamox tablets help to adjust quickly. In an experiment conducted, Ibuprofen reduced the effect of altitude sickness in about 86% of males and females. The Diamox tablets have a similar success rate. You can consume 400 mg of Motrin or Advil in the morning and in every six-hour interval to acclimatize appropriately and prevent altitude sickness. However, consulting your physician before taking the tablets is a recommended option.

Descend

Despite all your efforts, if you still feel the effects of altitude sickness in your body, the wise thing would be to descend to lower altitudes. If the problems keep on persisting, you have to discard the trek and seek treatment at favourable altitudes.

How Can You Treat Altitude Sickness?

  • You can treat acute mountain sickness by not ascending to higher altitudes until symptoms get better. Taking a few days off acclimatizing to the environment is also beneficial. Also, remember to stay hydrated and avoid taking alcohol and caffeine while you’re treating yourself. Also, Ibuprofen and Diamox tablets can help speed up acclimatization.
  • Treating HACE requires immediate descent to lower altitudes where the air is thick and sufficient. Also, bottled oxygen may be necessary depending on the individual’s condition. You can also use Dexamethasone tablets to minimize the effects.
  • HAPE is a much more severe condition and requires immediate medical attention. The first thing is to transport the person to lower altitudes immediately and use oxygen chambers for providing oxygen. People use Nifedipine tablets to make their condition better.

In Conclusion

Altitude sickness is a common phenomenon in higher altitudes. They can quickly develop from mild symptoms to severe ones, and if left untreated, can pose life-threatening complications. Despite your strong physical endurance, you can still fall prey to altitude sickness.

However, with proper acclimatization and necessary precautions, you can avoid altitude sickness altogether. So next time you’re on a high-altitude trek, be sure to follow all the required precautions to prevent altitude sickness and have a pleasant trekking experience.

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