altitude sicknessWhat really happens to your body when you climb?

For many of us, the best way to tackle the winter blues is to book an exciting winter getaway that’s full of adventure. Unfortunately, a lot of the most desirable spots in the world — the Swiss Alps, Machu Picchu and the Rocky Mountains — are also ones which carry a significant risk of altitude sickness.

What is altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness is actually a term which encompasses three different conditions that occur at high altitudes, the first and mildest being AMS: acute mountain sickness. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 25% of visitors to Colorado (the U.S. state with the highest altitude at 6,800 feet above sea level) experience symptoms of the condition. [1]

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the most common symptoms of AMS include fatigue, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, a lack of appetite and difficulty falling asleep.[2] Headaches can occur within two to 12 hours of exposure to high altitudes and, in most cases, symptoms last between 12 and 48 hours, only leading to more long-term concerns if you continue to ascend.

It’s thought that AMS primarily occurs due to the way higher elevation impacts your brain. Ascending to a high altitude causes changes in the blood flow to the brain, and in some individuals this can lead to a swelling of the brain tissues.[3] However, most people who experience AMS will find that descending around 1,000 feet will alleviate the symptoms, according the CDC.[4]

Altitude sickness complications

In severe cases however, brain swelling can occur on a more significant scale, leading to a much more serious form of altitude sickness: high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE). This form of altitude sickness impacts the blood flow to the brain tissue, preventing the brain from being able to function normally. The tell-tale symptom that AMS has progressed to HACE is ataxia, or loss of balance. Other symptoms include intense fatigue and confusion, and prolonged brain swelling can lead to loss of consciousness or even death.[5]

High-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) is another possibly life-threatening complication which can result from altitude sickness. It can occur on its own or alongside AMS and HACE. HAPE occurs when fluid collect in the lungs, resulting in difficulty breathing.[6] The blood flow of the lungs begins to get erratic and cause more pressure in some pulmonary arteries than others. As the air sacs in the lungs fill up, your ability to oxygenate the blood decreases, causing a greater lack of oxygen.

According to the CDC, symptoms can include headaches, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, heart palpitations, fever, chest pain, fatigue and a mucus cough. It can become fatal even more quickly than HACE.[7]

Treating and preventing altitude sickness

altitude sickness medicationTaking things slowly and giving your body time to adjust is key to avoiding altitude sickness. The CDC advises that you should not travel from a low altitude to over 9,000 feet in a single day. Instead, they recommend increasing your sleeping altitude by no more than 1,600 feet a day.[8]

You should also make sure to stay hydrated and avoid substances like alcohol when climbing.[9] Effective altitude sickness relief medication can help you to travel safely and without worry.

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