What is Altitude Sickness?
When you are in a high altitude destination, do you:
- Feel terrible?
- Feel nauseous and weak?
- Experience headaches?
- Struggle to fall asleep?
- Feel irritable and cranky?
These are the classic symptoms that can develop when traveling to a high-altitude destination, or when heading off into the mountains for mountain climbing, skiing, or hiking. This condition is called altitude sickness or acute mountain sickness.
The further into the atmosphere we climb, the thinner the air around us becomes, with less and less oxygen. Although the air remains constant, the barometric pressure decreases, resulting in fewer oxygen molecules being inhaled-- and it is this lack of oxygen that causes altitude sickness.
The body needs a supply of oxygen to function properly, and as you ascend you will probably find that your breathing is more labored and you are experiencing difficulty walking or climbing up hill. Altitude sickness generally occurs when traveling to high altitudes but can also affect individuals at altitudes as low as 5,000 feet – when they have ascended rapidly and have not acclimatized to the environment.
While enjoying a panoramic view from a mountain summit can be an exhilarating experience, the view can actually be "breathtaking". High altitudes can be dangerous. Altitude sickness occurs most often in people who are not used to high altitudes, and have gone from a lower altitude to higher altitude without allowing their bodies time to adjust.
How is Altitude Classified?
Altitude is classified according to the following scale:
- High (8,000-12 000 feet or 2,348-3,658 meters)
- Very high (12,000-18,000 feet or 3,658-5,487 meters)
- Extremely high (18,000+ feet or 5,500+ meters)
Generally, most people can ascend to 8,000 feet without any difficulty, but acute altitude sickness can occasionally occur at this level. Symptoms usually present themselves within 8 to 96 hours after a rapid ascent to altitudes of 8,000 feet and higher. This condition varies in each individual, with some being more susceptible to altitude sickness than others. In most cases, the amount of physical activity at a high altitude should be taken into consideration. It is therefore important to understand the physiological effects of high altitudes and to exercise caution when traveling to high altitude destinations.
Symptoms of Altitude Sickness
The signs and symptoms of altitude sickness include:
More severe symptoms of altitude sickness include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Extreme fatigue
- Impaired motor control
- Persistent cough and coughing up frothy, pink liquid (sputum)
- Fluid accumulation in the brain and lungs
- Double vision
Who is at risk?
There are certain factors that can increase your risk of developing altitude sickness and they include:
- Pre-existing heart or respiratory problems
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Rapid ascent to a high altitude
- Living at an altitude less than 3,000 feet
- The very young and the very old are at increased risk
- The consumption of alcohol, sedatives or sleeping pills
Diagnosing Altitude Sickness
The diagnosis of altitude sickness is determined by the clinical symptoms as well as a history of travel to a destination with a higher altitude than you are used to.
What Causes Altitude Sickness?
Altitude sickness is caused by a lack of oxygen when traveling to higher altitudes. There is less oxygen in the air the higher you climb above sea level. The oxygen level becomes very low at altitudes above 7,000 feet (2,100m) causing problems for individuals whose bodies have not yet had time to acclimatize.
This condition occurs when the body reacts to the lack of oxygen supply to the brain and muscles, causing the heart and lungs to work extra hard-- which means that they require even more oxygen. Breathing and pulse rates increase, while at the same time, the body has to cope with the low oxygen supply.
As a result, changes in lung pressure, blood acidity, electrolytes, fluid and salt balance occur. Serious complications can develop such as high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) can occur when fluid accumulates in the lungs and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) fluid accumulates in the brain.
Help for Altitude Sickness
Altitude sickness can have serious consequences if it is not attended to promptly and correctly. The most effective way to prevent altitude sickness is to ascend slowly, taking two days to go from sea level to 7000 feet and then one day for every 2000 feet after this.
Although physical fitness and climbing experience allow your body to use proportionally less oxygen for the amount of exertion, they do not prevent you from developing altitude sickness. Frequent small meals of easily digested carbohydrates, drinking plenty of water and avoiding alcohol and additional salt will all help to protect you against developing altitude sickness.
Mild cases of altitude sickness can usually be treated with rest, limited physical activity for a few days, plenty of fluids and painkillers if need be.
If symptoms are more severe, medical treatment may be necessary. There are a number of allopathic medications that are commonly used to treat and prevent altitude sickness. These drugs do have side effects and may not agree with everyone, so it is advisable to consult your physician before use. Hospital treatment may be required where oxygen, rest and drugs will be administered, and usually full recovery is made.
Herbal and homeopathic remedies have been used traditionally for many years. They are all natural, fast-acting and non-addictive. They contain ingredients such as Zingiber officinalis, Mentha piperita, Kali phos, Ferrum phos, Cocculus and Pulsatilla vulgaris. These remedies in combination may help tominimize shortness of breath, disorientation and speed recovery. Consult a doctor, homeopath or naturopath about a treatment that suits your needs.
Complementary therapy can also promote a speedy recovery from altitude sickness. There are a variety of complementary therapies that include: acupuncture or pressure points, massage, and Reiki.
These treatment options help to restore proper energy flow, promote healing and harmony within the body.
More Information for Altitude Sickness
Tips for Altitude Sickness
Follow these guidelines to prevent altitude sickness episodes:
- Drink plenty of water.
- Avoid alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and salty foods.
- Eat small, high-carbohydrate snacks such as fruit or starchy food frequently.
- Keep in good physical condition.
- Start out slowly, pace yourself and remember to listen to your body until you perfect a comfortable stride.
- Acclimatize yourself to the elevation by staying a couple of nights at higher altitudes before starting your trip to allow your body time to adjust.
- When you reach an altitude above 8,000 feet, don't go up faster than 1,000 feet per day.
- Ascend slowly and carefully when symptoms of altitude sickness present themselves.
- Be aware of your body’s temperature as perspiration can sap your energy. Wear light-colored clothes during summer months and dark-colored clothes during winter months to absorb or repel sunlight.
- Learn pressure breathing, a technique that overcomes nausea. Purse your lips and exhale fully to allow the carbon dioxide in your lungs to escape, and force oxygen into your lungs.
- Always take extra precautions when it comes to basic hygiene you are more susceptible to bacteria and viruses in a new environment than in your usual habitat.
- Take antioxidant vitamins such as A, C, and E to help minimize the effects of high altitudes.