What is Altitude Sickness: Who is at Risk for Altitude Sickness?

What is Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness, often known as mountain sickness, may have affected you if you’ve ever trekked up a mountain and felt dizzy or queasy. When you ascend to a high elevation (elevation) too soon, this syndrome develops.

Not just hikers experience it, though. A high-altitude location alone can be problematic for some people. When your body tries to adapt to the reduced air pressure and less oxygen present at high elevations, symptoms develop.

Who is at Risk for Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness can happen to anyone. Your risk doesn’t seem to depend on your age, sex, or general health. You might be more at risk if:

  • Have a lung or heart condition: Your healthcare provider may recommend avoiding high altitudes if possible.
  • Are pregnant: Talk to your provider before travelling to a high-altitude location.
  • Live at a low elevation: Since your body isn’t used to higher altitudes, you have a greater risk for symptoms. If you’re planning a trip to a high-altitude location, be aware of the symptoms of altitude sickness and how to treat it.
  • Previously had altitude sickness: Talk to your provider about prevention and treatment before your next trip.

What is Considered a “high Elevation” in Terms of Getting Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness can be brought on by climbing to these heights:

  • High altitude: 8,000 to 12,000 feet above sea level.
  • Very high altitude: 12,000 to 18,000 feet.
  • Extremely high altitude: 18,000+ feet.

New York City is 33 feet above sea level, which is important to know. The “Mile High City” of Denver is at 5,000 feet, and many ski slopes in the Rocky Mountains are at 11,000 feet or higher. The Grand Canyon is about 6,600 feet above sea level. Mount Everest’s peak is more than 29,000 feet high.

How Common is Altitude Sickness?

Up to half of the people who climb to heights above 8,000 feet may get altitude sickness.

What Are the Different Forms of Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness, often known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), is the most common kind of altitude sickness. At altitudes above 10,000 feet, 75% of persons will experience some discomfort. At present, AMS can be broken down into three distinct types:

  • Mild AMS: Symptoms, such as mild headache and fatigue, don’t interfere with your normal activity. Symptoms improve after a few days as your body acclimates. You can likely stay at your current elevation as your body adjusts.
  • Moderate AMS: Symptoms start to interfere with your activities. You may experience severe headaches, nausea and difficulty with coordination. You’ll need to descend to start to feel better.
  • Severe AMS: You may feel short of breath, even at rest. It can be difficult to walk. You need to descend immediately to a lower altitude and seek medical care.

There are two severe kinds of altitude diseases, but they are much less common. Both have the potential to endanger a person’s life. If any of the following apply to you, you must immediately descend and seek medical attention:

  • HAPE (High-altitude pulmonary oedema): HAPE produces excess fluid in the lungs, causing breathlessness, even when resting. You feel very fatigued and weak and may feel like you’re suffocating.
  • HACE (High-altitude cerebral oedema): HACE involves excess fluid on the brain, causing brain swelling. You may experience confusion, lack of coordination and possibly violent behaviour.

What Causes Altitude Sickness?

As you ascend in altitude, the air pressure and oxygen levels fluctuate more rapidly, increasing your risk of developing altitude sickness. Without acclimatisation, your body may react negatively to the lower oxygen levels at a high altitude. Altitude sickness can affect anyone, no matter how fit they are.

Blood vessel leakage is further exacerbated by the low atmospheric pressure seen at high altitudes. The specific cause of this phenomenon remains a mystery to scientists. As a result of this seepage, fluid can accumulate in the brain and lungs. Warning signs can be ignored at one’s peril.

What Are the Symptoms of Altitude Sickness?

You might feel faint and queasy. You can feel sick to your stomach and experience a severe headache. The symptoms of altitude sickness vary depending on the altitude at which they occur:

Mild, transient altitude sickness typically manifests 12-24 hours after reaching a high altitude. After a day or two, you should feel better as your body adjusts. Some of the signs and symptoms are:

  • Dizziness.
  • Fatigue and loss of energy.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Sleep problems.

Moderate altitude sickness symptoms are more severe and get worse over time, rather than getting better.

  • Worsening fatigue, weakness and shortness of breath.
  • Coordination problems and difficulty walking.
  • Severe headache, nausea and vomiting.
  • Chest tightness or congestion.
  • Difficulty doing regular activities, though you may still be able to walk independently.

Very bad altitude sickness is an emergency. The symptoms are like those of moderate AMS, but they are worse and more severe. If you start to feel any of these things, you must go to a lower altitude right away to get medical help:

  • Shortness of breath, even when resting.
  • Inability to walk.
  • Confusion.
  • Fluid buildup in the lungs or brain.

Hape, When fluid builds up in the lungs, oxygen can’t get to the rest of the body. HAPE needs to be treated by a doctor. Some of the signs are:

  • Cyanosis is when your skin, nails or whites of your eyes start to turn blue.
  • Confusion and irrational behaviour.
  • Shortness of breath even when resting.
  • Tightness in the chest.
  • Extreme fatigue and weakness.
  • Feeling like you’re suffocating at night.
  • Persistent cough, bringing up white, watery fluid.

Hence, when the brain tissue starts to swell because fluid is leaking into it. HACE needs to be treated by a doctor. Some of the signs are:

  • Headache
  • Loss of coordination.
  • Weakness.
  • Disorientation, memory loss, hallucinations.
  • Psychotic behaviour.
  • Coma

How is Altitude Sickness Diagnosed?

Most likely, you have altitude sickness if you get a headache and at least one other symptom within 24 to 48 hours of moving to a higher elevation. If you are climbing, a more experienced climber may be able to tell if you are getting altitude sickness and help you find help.

If you have severe altitude sickness, a doctor or nurse will ask about your symptoms, what you are doing, and where you are. The doctor or nurse may do a physical exam on you, which could include listening to your chest.

What is Altitude Sickness

Will I Need Tests to Diagnose Altitude Sickness?

A chest X-ray can help determine if fluid is present in the chest. Fluid in the brain can be detected with an MRI or CT scan if the condition is severe enough.

How is Altitude Sickness Treated?

The most effective way to combat altitude sickness is to descend to a safer altitude as soon as possible. To put it mildly, don’t take it any further. If the symptoms aren’t too severe, staying at your current elevation for a few days could help.

Other treatments depend on how severe the symptoms are:

  • Mild altitude sickness: Over-the-counter medicines can relieve headaches. Other symptoms will improve once your body adjusts or you move to a lower altitude.
  • Moderate altitude sickness: Symptoms should improve within 24 hours once you are 1,000 to 2,000 feet lower than you were. Within three days, you should feel completely better.
  • Severe altitude sickness, HACE and HAPE: If you have severe symptoms, you must be taken immediately to an elevation that’s no higher than 4,000 feet. Get to a healthcare provider as soon as possible. You may need hospitalization.

What Treatments Are Available for Severe Altitude Sickness?

Treatments depend on your symptoms:

  • For fluid in the brain (HACE), you may need dexamethasone, a steroid that helps reduce swelling in the brain. Dexamethasone is sometimes prescribed as a preventive medication.
  • For fluid in the lungs (HAPE), you may need oxygen, medication, a lung inhaler or, in severe cases, a respirator.
  • If you need more oxygen, To take in more oxygen, your doctor may prescribe acetazolamide, which speeds up your breathing rate. Altitude sickness is mitigated and the body’s ability to adapt to higher altitudes is accelerated by the medication.

How Can Altitude Sickness Be Prevented?

Acclimatization, or taking things slowly, is the greatest method to avoid getting altitude sickness. The time it takes for your body to adapt to lower oxygen levels is minimised by this method. Proceed slowly as you make your way up. As an example, stop and rest for a day at about the halfway point before continuing your ascent.

The use of acetazolamide before travel might also be discussed with your doctor. Prevention of altitude sickness can be achieved by beginning treatment 24 hours before ascending to a high altitude and continuing it for another 5 days. Dexamethasone has a secondary, preventative function, but its side effects are dangerous. Before you go, make sure you contact your service provider.

If I’m Planning a Hike to a Very High Elevation, How Can I Hike Safely Without Getting Altitude Sickness?

These steps can help your body acclimate:

  • Walk up: Instead of driving or flying, start below 10,000 feet and walk up to a high altitude. If you drive or fly to an altitude higher than 10,000 feet, you should stay at your first stop for at least 24 hours before going higher.
  • Go slow: Once above 10,000 feet, don’t increase your altitude by more than 1,000 feet a day.
  • Rest: Build a rest day into your schedule for every 3,000 feet you climb.
  • “Climb high and sleep low” If you go up more than 1,000 feet in a day, sleep at a lower elevation.
  • Know your body Learn what the symptoms and signs of altitude sickness are. If you have any of these signs, go to a lower altitude or don’t climb higher.
  • Stay hydrated: Drink 3-4 quarts of water per day.
  • Avoid alcohol: Alcohol can dehydrate your body. It also has stronger effects at higher elevations, which can impair judgment.
  • Eat carbs: Eat a diet that’s more than 70% carbohydrates.
  • Know the “don’ts”: Avoid tobacco and depressant drugs, such as sleeping pills and tranquillizers.

What should I ask my doctor?

If you plan to travel to a high altitude, you should ask your doctor:

Should I take medicine to keep from getting altitude sickness?
Do I have any health problems that would make it dangerous for me to go to high elevations?
What else can I do to keep from getting altitude sickness?
What should I do if I start to feel sick while I’m climbing?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

The effects of high altitude can be anywhere from annoying to fatal. However, this issue is avoidable with the right preparation and attention. To avoid this, it is advisable to slow down and give your body time to readjust. Don’t try to force yourself to go higher if you experience symptoms while at a high altitude. Return to a lower altitude and give your body time to acclimate before making the ascent again, but this time more gradually.

Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below and do not forget to visit journalization.org for more mind-boggling updates.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top