High Altitude Sickness – Symptom, Treatments, Prevention

High Altitude SicknessWhen my wife and I were on a trip to Pike’s Peak in Colorado, we decided to take the incline railway to the top.  It was a fantastic October day.  The air was crisp and as we disembarked the train car, at over 14,000 feet, we were met with a rush of cold air.  After walking around the top for a few minutes and being extremely out of breath, I as well as my wife began to feel light headed.

Let me give you a little background information:  We are from Georgia, elevation 1,000 feet above sea level.  I believe we are known as lowlanders or flatlanders.

The story really turns funny at this point.  My wife handed me her sunglasses, which I then put in my coat pocket and she headed off to look at some trinkets in the gift shop.  After a few minutes she came back to me to ask me if I had seen her sunglasses.  I politely told her they were in my coat pocket.  Move ahead five minutes, “Honey, where are my sunglasses?”.  Finally, when we got back onto the railcar, “Have you seen my sunglasses?”.

We always have a big laugh over this story.  We call it the “Rocky Mountain High” syndrome.  But, having High Altitude Sickness or Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is no laughing matter.

AMS occurs when a person ascends to a high altitude, normally over 8,000 feet, from a lower altitude without giving the body enough time to acclimate.

At higher altitudes, the barometric pressure decreases.  The body must work harder at these elevations to obtain enough oxygen to sustain itself.  This will cause you to breathe deeper and faster.  You may also feel out of breath as you are exerting yourself.

Symptoms of AMS:

  • Headache:  This is the most common symptom.
  • Nausea and/or Vomiting.
  • Dizziness.
  • Unable to sleep or abnormal sleep patterns.
  • Lethargy: In the extreme cases, you don’t even feel like getting up and doing anything.

All of these symptoms can have different levels of severity from very mild to extreme.

AMS is not bias. Anyone at any age with any level of athleticism can get AMS. This also includes people who have hiked the same trail many times.

AMS Prevention:

  • Ascend slowly.  An ascent may take several days or longer.
  • Avoid alcohol.
  • Sleep at a lower altitude than you are at during the day (If you are skiing up to 10,000 feet, sleep at 8,000 feet)
  • Drink plenty of liquids.  Stay hydrated
  • Eat more carbohydrates, but avoid large meals.
The rule here is to give your body time to acclimate. There are no hard and fast rules for how long this takes. Every person will acclimate at a different rate.

AMS Treatment:

If you get any of the symptoms above, your first thought is that you have AMS and to treat the symptoms as if you do.

  • Go to a lower altitude.  If you have mild symptoms after arriving at a high altitude resort, they may subside after time.  (Again, it will take time, from hours to days, for your body to get acclimated.)  At the very least, take it easy and rest during the acclimation period.
  • Take an over the counter medication for your headache (acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen).
  • Oxygen or pressure chamber.
  • You can get Acetazolamide, Nifedipine or Dexamethasone from a doctor to help speed up the acclimation process.

This is very basic information about AMS.  For a more comprehensive guide, go to the International Society for Mountain Medicine (www.ismmed.org).

The information provided in this article should not be used as medical advice, treatment or diagnosis.  It does not take the place of advice from a medical professional.

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