Ascending to high altitudes can be incredibly rewarding, but it can also bring on symptoms of altitude sickness. Altitude sickness can range from mild to severe and can cause considerable discomfort for those afflicted. Learning how to identify, prevent and treat altitude sickness is therefore essential for anyone planning a trek to high altitudes. In this article, we will break down the reasons why altitude sickness occurs, the symptoms to look out for, ways to prevent it and treatments to alleviate symptoms.

What is Altitude Sickness and What Causes It?

Altitude sickness is a condition caused by the body’s inability to adjust to the lower levels of oxygen present at high altitudes. It commonly affects those who ascend quickly and is more likely to affect those who have ascended more than 3,000 meters (9,843 feet) above sea level. Altitude sickness can range from mild to severe, the severity depending on how high and quickly the person has ascended.

Symptoms of Mild Altitude Sickness

When a person is affected by mild altitude sickness, they may experience certain symptoms, including:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite

If left untreated, however, the condition can become more serious and potentially life-threatening.

Symptoms of Severe Altitude Sickness

Severe altitude sickness can cause serious symptoms, including:

  • Breathing difficulty – shortness of breath, breathlessness, labored breathing
  • Fluid in the lungs – which can cause coughing, a moist, gurgling sound in the chest, and in extreme cases, frothy pink-tinged liquid coming up when coughing
  • Unconsciousness
  • Cyanosis – a blue tinge to the fingernails, lips, and mucous membranes caused by inadequate oxygen levels

Preventing Altitude Sickness

The best way to prevent altitude sickness is to ascend slowly and give the body time to adjust to the decrease in oxygen levels. Some tips to help prevent altitude sickness include:

  • Take frequent rests during ascent – allowing for the body to adjust to the elevation gradually.
  • Eat light and nutritional meals – eating takeaway or processed foods can make symptoms worse.
  • Drink plenty of water – this helps keep the body hydrated and reduce the risk of getting dehydrated.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol – it causes dehydration and can increase the symptoms.
  • Avoid smoking – as it lowers the oxygen levels in the body.

Treating Altitude Sickness

The treatment for altitude sickness depends on the severity of the symptoms. For mild altitude sickness, the following treatments can help alleviate the symptoms:

  • Descend if possible, as the symptoms usually improve once the person is at a lower altitude.
  • Rest – as this will help the body to adjust to the altitude.
  • Drink plenty of fluids and – water is best, and avoid caffeinated or alcoholic drinks.
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers – for headaches, for example, ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help.

For more serious cases of altitude sickness, medical treatment may be needed. Some treatments for severe altitude sickness include:

  • Oxygen therapy
  • Descending to a lower altitude
  • Fludrocortisone – a type of medication prescribed by a doctor to help with the symptoms.

People Also Ask

  • Can altitude sickness be prevented?
  • Yes, altitude sickness can be prevented by ascending slowly and taking frequent rests. Eating light meals, drinking plenty of water, avoiding alcohol and smoking also help reduce the risk of getting altitude sickness.

  • What can you do if you have altitude sickness?
  • If you have mild altitude sickness, you can try descending, rest, drinking plenty of water and taking over-the-counter pain relievers. More severe cases may require medical treatment, such as oxygen therapy or fludrocortisone.

  • How long does altitude sickness last?
  • Altitude sickness can last for a few days or up to two weeks. The symptoms will usually improve as soon as you descend to a lower altitude.

  • Are there any risk factors for altitude sickness?
  • Yes, risk factors for altitude sickness include ascending quickly, ascending more than 3,000 meters (9,843 feet) above sea level and having previous episodes of altitude sickness.

  • What should I do if someone has altitude sickness?
  • If someone has mild altitude sickness, they should descend to a lower altitude, rest, drink plenty of fluids and take any medication they have been prescribed. For more severe cases, they may need to be taken to a medical facility for treatment.

Final Words

Altitude sickness is a condition caused by the body’s inability to adjust to the lower levels of oxygen in the air at high altitudes. It is important to learn what the symptoms are, the risk factors and how to prevent and treat altitude sickness when heading to a higher altitude. If the symptoms are mild, rest and taking over-the-counter pain relief may be enough. But for more severe cases, medical treatment may be needed.

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