13th June 2024

Altitude Sickness in Himalaya!

When ascending from the sea level to higher altitude places, atmospheric pressure gradually decreases and oxygen level decreases alongside. If a climber is ascending rapidly, he/she can suffer from acute mountain sickness otherwise known as altitude sickness. Climbing too fast will not allow climbers body to adapt to low oxygen levels and fluctuations in air pressure. Thus, developing symptoms of altitude sickness. People living in plain ground and lower regions are most likely to get sick in mountain regions. It is particularly common at elevations of 8,000 feet or above.

Symptoms of altitude sickness

Age, gender, or physical fitness have no relevance on the risk of altitude sickness. Also, just because a person haven’t had it previously doesn’t imply he/she won’t have it on future trip. Acute mountain sickness can become emergency medical condition if ignored. In order to avoid such conditions, following symptoms are to be looked for:

  1. Mild, short-term altitude sickness: These are the symptoms commonly appear after 12 to 24 hours after arriving at higher altitude places. Symptoms are:
  • Fatigue and energy deficiency
  • Feeling dizzy with headache
  • Shortness of breath
  • Loss of appetite
  • Problems with sleep

            These are not the symptoms to be panic about as climbers body starts to adjust into      environment and symptoms lessens in a day or two.

  1. Moderate to severe altitude sickness: This symptoms do not lessen but can grow over time. This symptoms instead becomes severe. Symptoms are:
  • Severe headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Worsening fatigue and weakness
  • Tightness or congestion in the chest with deteriorating breathing problem
  • Problems with coordination and walking.

These conditions if not checked properly, climber can develop HAPE. It is a syndrome in which fluid accumulates in the lungs, preventing oxygen from flowing around the body. Symptoms are:

  • Shortness in breathing even while resting
  • Turning of skins, nails or white of eyes blue
  • Confusion and irrational behavior
  • Coughing up a white or pink frothy material

Treatment of altitude sickness

Altitude sickness can be treated by fellow climbers only if it has not reached severe conditions.

Mild altitude sickness can be treated by dedicated medications for the symptoms and resting for a day or two until the symptoms fade away.

Moderate altitude sickness can be treated by descending patient 1,000-2,000 feet lower from current altitude. Doing so should improve patient condition in a day. In 3-4 days patient should be completely better.

Severe altitude sickness/ HAPE should be treated urgently. Patient should be descended immediately to altitude no more than 4,000 feet and rushed to health care. Hospitalization may be required.

If health care service is available, it will be better to check vitals of patients regardless of their conditions.

Prevention of altitude sickness

Prevention of altitude sickness is through acclimatization. Acclimatization refers to the advantageous physiological changes that occur as a result of frequent exposure to a diverse environment. This means slowly ascending the elevation can give climber’s body time to adapt to the change in atmospheric pressure and low oxygen level. Some ways to achieve acclimatization are:

  • Slowly ascending towards higher altitude
  • Starting the climb below 10,000 feet. (i.e. climbers should not drive or fly above 10,000 to start climbing )
  • Tobacco, alcohol, and drugs such as sleeping pills should be avoided, especially during the first 48 hours. Caffeine is safe if you regularly consume it.
  • Drink 3-4 quarts of water every day, and make sure carbs account for 70% of your calories.



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