Altitude Sickness 101
If you are the adventurous type and love the outdoors there are few greater thrills than embarking on a trek or a climb. From Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to Khuiten in Mongolia, the Matterhorn in Switzerland to Annapurna in Nepal, there’s no better way to challenge yourself – to be rewarded by stunning views and a life-changing experience.
But while the physical and mental challenges of trekking are to be respected, one of the most important factors that anybody travelling up in the world needs to understand is the effect of altitude on the body. Altitude sickness has little respect for strength or physical fitness and can come in a number of forms. These include:
AMS: Acute Mountain Sickness
Common symptoms include headache, nausea, dizziness and exhaustion
HAPE: High Altitude Pulmonary Edema
Fluid on the lungs causing breathlessness. Often this is accompanied by a fever and a cough that produces frothy spit.
HACE: High Altitude Cerebral Edema
Fluid on the brain causing confusion, clumsiness, deterioriating levels of confusion
While cases of HAPE and HACE are extremely dangerous to climbers attempting high altitudes, they usually develop at altitudes of 3,600 metres. Much more common is AMS, which can affect day hikers and climbers at around 2,500 metres, although it is possible amongst those who ascend quickly to a height in excess of 1500 metres above sea level.
What causes altitude sickness?
Altitude sickness is related to the thinning of the air as you ascend higher above sea level. The greater the elevation, the fewer the number of oxygen molecules per break. Above 3000 metres, 75% of people will experience mild altitude sickness due to the depletion of oxygen in the body.
Suffering from altitude sickness is not a sign of physical weakness or age. In fact, age, gender and fitness levels have little to do with a person’s likelihood of getting altitude sickness.
Treating altitude sickness
While it is possible to acclimatize to the thinner air at altitude, people should take great care when attempting to spend a prolonged time at a height above 2500 metres. Ascending slowly (less than 500 metres per day) can help and staying hydrated and fuelled at all times is also important. Prescription altitude sickness medications such as Acetazolamide can also be effective in preventing and treating altitude sickness to decrease symptoms such as headaches, tiredness, nausea and shortness of breath.
For those suffering from AMS during an ascent, resting for 24 hours and taking Acetazolamide can help. If the symptoms subside it is safe to continue a climb. However, if the symptoms persevere, it is advisable to descend to a safe level to recover. If you find yourself suffering from HAPE or HACE then you should descend immediately with the help of those travelling with you.
Are there other remedies or medications that can help?
Although there is anecdotal evidence and old wives tales about other treatments and herbal remedies that are claimed to prevent altitude sickness, there are no proven alternatives to Acetazolamide. Indeed, some herbal remedies can have dangerous side effects or simply worsen the problem.
If you wish to discuss the symptoms of altitude sickness or discuss preparations for an upcoming trek further, why not consult one of our pharmacists today. Try our Live Chat facility or call 0208 123 0703.