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What is Altitude Sickness?

What is Altitude Sickness?

Acknowledging the symptoms of altitude sickness is the first step towards normalcy. HAPE (High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema) and HACE (High-Altitude Cerebral Edema) demand instantaneous remedial measures.
Abhay Burande
Those people who have made a plan to travel to the mountains for skiing, backpacking, trekking, mountain climbing etc., must ascertain that they would reach a height of less than 8000 feet i.e., 2438.4 meters. If they aim for more height, then they must garner information about "Altitude Sickness". Other terms for this sickness are "High-altitude Illness" or "Mountain Sickness".

As the height from sea level increases, the amount of oxygen in the air decreases. At a height of about 8000 feet, the oxygen level becomes very low. Normally, people live at lower altitudes where the oxygen level is higher. They are not accustomed to higher altitudes where the level of oxygen starts decreasing. In the latter scenario, the body stops functioning normally and hence, it is termed as "Altitude Sickness". It is of three types:
  • Acute Mountain Sickness
  • High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE)
  • High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE)
Mild Symptoms
  • Weakness
  • Headache
  • Upset stomach
  • Lightheadedness
  • Lack of sleep
If these symptoms appear, one should descend to a lower altitude, till the symptoms subside.

Severe Symptoms
  • Difficulty in breathing normally, although the body is at rest
  • Failure to walk along a straight path
  • Coughing
  • Confusion
In case such symptoms pester, the sufferer must move to a lower altitude and get assistance from a physician.

Children require more time to acclimate. Also, they are not able to recognize the symptoms of altitude sickness. So, seniors must pay attention towards them.

Medicines prescribed to treat high-altitude illness are:
  • acetazolamide
  • nifedipine
It is necessary to take the symptoms seriously and stop ascending immediately. The affected people should travel 1500 to 2000 feet towards sea level and watch if the symptoms are disappearing. The strategy is to continue the journey downwards till the symptoms are eliminated completely. In addition, following points may prove useful:
  • The body requires several days to adjust to the climate. Thus, plan the trip in such a way that there is sufficient time for adjustment.
  • Even if you climb higher and higher during the day, ensure to come back to a base camp that is not more than 1000 feet higher than the previous night's sleep location.
Chronic Illness and Altitude Sickness
Those who have lung or heart disease must consider the type and severity of their illness. Coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, and mild emphysema patients have a higher risk than normal people. Being obese does not aggravate the risk of altitude sickness. However, those people who have sickle cell anemia, severe heart disease, severe lung disease like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or severe emphysema have a greater risk at higher altitudes.

High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE)
HAPE generally takes place during the second night after starting ascending and increases with exertion. The various symptoms of this health problem are:
  • Fast and shallow breathing
  • Severe fatigue
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Breathlessness even while resting
  • Cough along with frothy sputum
  • Drowsiness
  • Fingernails or lips turning blue or gray
The only alternative is to descend immediately, as postponement may prove fatal.

High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE)
In this condition the brain stops functioning properly due to swelling. The symptoms are as follows:
  • Staggering while walking
  • Confusion and lethargy
  • Alteration in the capacity to think
  • Ataxia or loss of coordination
If left unattended, the condition can prove fatal within some hours or a couple of days.

If you recognize the symptoms of altitude sickness quickly and take prompt treatment, it can avert any undesired incident.