Altitude Sickness – Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Otherwise referred to as acute mountain sickness (AMS), altitude illness or hypobaropathy in some quarters, altitude sickness is a condition in which you have very low oxygen supply in your system, which normally occurs while in a high altitude area.

Who is at Risk?

You are likely to suffer altitude sickness once you go higher than 8,000 feet above sea level. Altitude sickness is however not restricted to high altitude areas only, you can suffer the same while in an area with low air pressure. Without any assistance immediately, altitude sickness can progress to high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), which is fatal. Note that even if you do not suffer altitude sickness after going beyond 8,000 feet, you are at risk of developing chronic altitude sickness, a different condition that is brought about by over-exposure to high altitude.Those most likely to suffer altitude sickness are the youth (12 – 20) years and those above 50 years. This is because while the youth will strive to reach high altitude fast and therefore spend a lot of oxygen, the elderly are faced with additional health problems.

Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

The height at which you can suffer altitude sickness is not restricted to 8,000 feet. You can suffer the condition even at 6,000 feet, depending on your state of health. Either way, you are not likely to experience symptoms immediately. This is because altitude sickness symptoms appear after about ten hours of ascent. Symptoms include headache, stomachache, dizziness and general fatigue. While these symptoms fade away on their own after about two days, there is always the danger of the same progressing to serious health problems. While these are the major symptoms, you are likely to experience other minor symptoms including bleeding on the nose, drowsiness, and diarrhea, swellings on hand, face, feet and gradual loss of consciousness.

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Treatment of Altitude Sickness

The first line of treating altitude sickness is usually to descend from high altitude to low altitude area. In most cases, oxygen enrichment and possibly drinking water is administered before descent. This is why mountain climbing sites have medical personnel around. Acetazolamide medication is usually administered while on descent in appropriate dosages. Dexamethasone is another alternative medication that you can use while on descent. Although Nifedipine medication is also helpful, it is usually reserved for treating or preventing HAPE.

Apart from altitude sickness treatment, you can prevent the same before you embark on ascending to high altitude. As part of your preparation, it is important that you take Acetazolamide medication in doses of 250 mg twice a day, two days before you begin ascending. You need to continue taking the medication at the highest altitude and a few days after descending. Although Sumatriptan medication has shown positive trial results in preventing altitude sickness, its use for the same has not been approved.

Apart from medications, indigenous people living around high altitude areas and who are used to climbing mountains use various natural remedies to alleviate altitude symptoms. Such include coca leaves, which are chewed before ascent. One other effective way of preventing altitude sickness is to ascend slowly while avoiding strenuous activities along the way. Drinking lots of water with adequate rest also prevents altitude sickness. If you are into alcohol, you seriously need to avoid the same a day to ascending because alcohol causes body dehydration, which encourages the occurrence of altitude sickness.

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