For people who are not accustomed to living in high altitude environments, Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) or Altitude Sickness is a common occurrence when traveling to sites with elevations of approximately 8,000 feet (2,400 meters above sea level) and above. This means popular destinations like Everest Base Camp, Annapurna Sanctuary, Upper Mustang, Kanchenjunga Base Camp, Makalu Base Camp, and other high altitude sites present a risk of AMS for hikers, skiers, and adventurers. Especially because these locations are usually remote, it’s important to be able to recognize and identify the symptoms of AMS and how to deal with them.
What to Watch Out For
AMS is caused by a lack of oxygen to the body and decreased air pressure which can be experienced during skiing, mountain trekking, or flying when the body does not have enough time to adapt to the change, or too much energy is exerted. This can lead to a range of symptoms, including:
- dizziness, nausea, and/or vomiting
- headaches and muscle aches
- loss of appetite, irritability
- swelling in feet, hands, and face
- shortage of breath
- increased heartbeat severe cases include coughing, chest congestion, skin discoloration, and loss of balance and ability to walk
These cases can lead to damage in the cardiovascular as well and muscular and nervous systems, and should be dealt with on an urgent basis; worst case scenarios can result in a coma or death. Less severe cases should also be dealt with immediately before they can progress.
How to Treat It
In non-severe cases, AMS can be resolved by descending to a lower altitude, hydrating with water, and taking time to rest between activity and before ascending to a higher altitude. Symptoms can take from a few hours to a few days to subside. If there is swelling in the brain and fluid on the lungs, however, oxygen may be administered. Patients may also be prescribed a range of medication including acetazolamide to aid breathing, dexamethasone to reduce swelling in the brain, aspirin for headache relief, and blood pressure medicine.
How to Prevent It
Fortunately, most people can prevent the onset of AMS with some conscientious planning. This includes ensuring good physical health before exposure to high altitudes (such as assurance of no serious health conditions and reasonable fitness levels). Doctors can prescribe acetazolamide to be taken before climbing, and trekkers can also plan their route accordingly to allow for gradual ascent and days of rest (usually done in 2,000 ft intervals).
Keeping hydrated, carrying oxygen when ascending above 9,000 ft, eating regular, high-carbohydrate meals and avoiding unnecessary exertion (and allowing for plenty of rest) will also help prevent AMS.
Take Note If:
You suffer from heart and lung disease. Your cardiovascular system will experience strain under high altitudes. Additionally, if you are taking medications that lower breathing rates like narcotic pain relievers, tranquilizers, and sleeping pills, consult the doctor before climbing to high altitudes.
People who suffer from anemia should also consider taking iron supplements before trekking to high altitudes. Low red blood cell counts means less oxygen in the blood, which will be extenuated by high climbs.
Like any illness, AMS can be prevented and treating accordingly with conscientious planning and an acute awareness of its symptoms, and sufficient access to the right resources for treatment.