Acute Mountain Sickness and Acclimatization

Acute Mountain sickness , sometimes called Altitude sickness normally becomes noticeable at altitudes in excess of 8,000ft and spares no one. Altitude sickness is a group of symptoms that can strike if you walk or climb to a higher elevation, or altitude, too quickly . The pressure of the air that surrounds you is called barometric pressure. When you go to higher altitudes, this pressure drops and there is less oxygen available . If you live in a place that’s located at a moderately high altitude, you get used to the air pressure. But if you travel to a place at a higher altitude than you’re used to, your body will need time to adjust to the change in pressure. Any time you go above 8,000 feet, you can be at risk for altitude sickness.

Types : There are three kinds of altitude sickness

  1. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is the mildest form and it’s very common. The symptoms can feel like a hangover dizziness, headache, muscle aches, nausea.

  2. High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) is a buildup of fluid in the lungs that can be very dangerous and even life threatening.

  3. High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) is the most severe form of altitude sickness and happens when there’s fluid in the brain. It’s life threatening and you need to seek medical attention right away.

Symptoms : You might have

  • Headache

  • Dizziness

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Fatigue and loss of energy

  • Shortness of breath

  • Problems with sleep

  • Loss of appetite

Symptoms usually come on within 12 to 24 hours of reaching a higher elevation and then get better within a day or two as your body adjusts to the change in altitude.

If you have a more moderate case of altitude sickness, your symptoms might feel more intense and not improve with over-the-counter medications . Instead of feeling better as time goes on, you’ll start to feel worse. You’ll have more shortness of breath and fatigue. You may also have:

  • Loss of coordination and trouble walking

  • A severe headache that doesn’t get better with medication

  • A tightening in your chest

If you develop a severe form of altitude sickness like HAPE or HACE, you might have:

  • Confusion

  • Shortness of breath even at rest

  • Inability to walk

  • A cough that produces a white or pink frothy substance

  • Coma

Who Gets it ?

Anyone can develop altitude sickness, no matter how fit, young, or healthy they are -- even Olympic athletes can get it. In fact, being physically active at a high elevation makes you more likely to get it.

Your chance of getting altitude sickness depends on a few other things: how quickly you move to a higher elevation, how high you go up, the altitude where you sleep, and other factors.

Your risk also depends on where you live and the altitude there, your age (young people are more likely to get it), and whether you’ve had altitude sickness before.

Having certain illnesses like diabetes or lung disease doesn’t automatically make you more likely to develop altitude sickness. But your genes could play a role in your body’s ability to handle higher elevations

How to Manage the Sickness :

The Golden rule is don’t go too high too fast. Take things at a leisurely pace in the mountains for trekking is not a forced route march and with this basic rule adhered to, altitude sickness should not be a problem. You’ll want to climb to higher altitudes gradually. Going slowly helps your lungs get more air through deeper breaths and allows more of your red blood cells to carry oxygen to different parts of your body. Above 3000m, the daily net elevation gain should be no more than 500m. Drink plenty of fluids at altitude as the air is extremely dry – the rule of thumb is that unless your pee is clear, you are not drinking enough.

The only effective cure for Mountain Sickness is descent. Anyone showing serious signs of the illness should be taken downhill immediately, regardless of the time of day or night, preferably by porter or pack animal. Recovery is usually dramatic, often after a descent of only a few hundred vertical meters.

Bombarded by medical advices and horror stories, trekkers  too often develop altitude paranoia. The fact is that just about everyone who treks over 4000m experiences some mild symptoms of mountain sickness but serious cases are very rare and the simple cure, descent, almost always brings immediate recovery.

In addition to being physically fit, trekkers should also be prepared to adopt a mental flexibility during the trip.

Basic Guidelines for Acclimatization :

  • Start your journey below 10,000 feet. If you have to fly or drive somewhere that’s higher up, stop at one destination that’s lower for at least a full day before going any higher.

  • If you walk, hike, or climb over 10,000 feet, only go up an additional 1,000 feet per day. For every 3,000 feet you climb, rest at least a day at that height.

  • “Climb high and sleep low”: If you have to climb over 1,000 feet in a day, make sure you come back down to a lower altitude to sleep.

  • Drink 2-3 litres  of fluids every day and make sure about 70% of your calories are coming from carbohydrates .

  • Don’t use tobacco, alcohol , or other medications, such as sleeping pills.

  • Know how to identify the first signs of altitude sickness. Immediately move to a lower elevation if you start to develop these symptoms.