Altitude sickness is not a trivial condition

Altitude sickness occurs when you ascend to higher elevations, usually above 8,000 feet, where the air is thinner and there is less oxygen.  There are three forms of altitude sickness, acute mountain sickness, which is the most common form; high altitude pulmonary edema, which involves fluid accumulation in the lungs; and high altitude cerebral edema, a swelling of the brain and obviously the most severe situation.

Acute mountain sickness is quite often experienced by those who travel from lower elevation cities to high altitude locations for skiing, mountain climbing, hiking and rafting, but may be experienced by anyone who finds themselves at a higher altitude than normal. Those at risk to experience symptoms include advanced age and with preexisting medical conditions. Symptoms include: constant headache, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, feeling overtired, weakness, dizziness and trouble sleeping. This sickness is obviously unpleasant and can ruin your trip. The following do’s and don’ts are to help you avoid and counter altitude sickness.


Do

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  • check with your physician
  • take time to acclimatize
  • ask your physician about taking medications
  • ascend slowly
  • drink lots of water
  • bring portable oxygen
  • descend immediately if experiencing symptoms
Don't

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  • ignore the symptoms
  • use nicotine, caffeine, or alcohol
  • ascend further
  • accept everything a sick person says

Scott J. Hershman, MD, CCMEP‘s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do check with your physician

If you have any existing pre-existing medical conditions it is important you consult with your physician prior to the trip. This also applies to anyone who is of advanced age.

Do take time to acclimatize

You have just arrived in the mountains from a sea level city. The natural inclination is to hit the slopes, start climbing, or take a hike. Stop. Your body needs time to acclimatize to the altitude and the thinner air. Relax and take it easy, don’t over exert yourself for the first 24 hours. This will significantly reduce your risk of getting altitude sickness.

Do ask your physician about taking medications

There are some medications that can help with altitude sickness but it is highly advisable that you consult with a physician first. Some of the medications do have side effects and some people can be allergic to the medications.

Do ascend slowly

As you go to higher elevations just take it slowly and easily. Rushing up the mountain will definitely increase your likelihood of altitude sickness. As a general rule of thumb, do not sleep more than 1,000 feet higher than you did the night before.

Do drink lots of water

At higher altitudes dehydration is common and this often results in headaches. Drink lots of water, about 5 liters of fluid per day.

Do bring portable oxygen

Bringing portable oxygen with you is an extreme thing to do, but it can help those who sometimes have difficulty breathing at lower elevation.

Do descend immediately if experiencing symptoms

If you start having altitude sickness symptoms, descend to a lower elevation where you were not experiencing any symptoms. Your body will not acclimatize at the higher elevation you are at if you have altitude sickness.


Scott J. Hershman, MD, CCMEP‘s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not ignore the symptoms

It is important that you accept you may have altitude sickness when you experience the symptoms. People will sometimes try to ignore the symptoms because they fear that others will judge them for ruining the trip. Everyone with you should be sympathetic that it could happen to any one of you. If you get sick, simply acknowledge it and start moving to lower elevations where you can acclimatize and then ascend again.

Do not use nicotine, caffeine, or alcohol

If you have altitude sickness, avoid alcohol, caffeine and smoking. These will all extend your recovery time.

Do not ascend further

If you have altitude sickness absolutely do not go any higher in altitude. It will not get better and can get a lot worse and transform into high altitude pulmonary edema or high altitude cerebral edema which can kill you in a matter of hours. Descend immediately to an elevation where you can acclimatize. Check with a physician prior to ascending again to ensure there are no complications.

Do not accept everything a sick person says

People with altitude illness are often disoriented and what they say should be taken with a grain of salt. If they are obviously suffering from altitude sickness, help the person get to a lower altitude even if they object.


Summary

Symptoms of altitude sickness usually occur within 6 to 10 hours after being at the elevation that induced the sickness. This timeline can be accelerated with physical exertion. Once sick, do not go any higher in elevation as your situation will only get worse. If you have the symptoms, descend immediately to a lower elevation equal to where the person was a day or two before. The symptoms usually stop within 48 hours after descending to the lower elevation. Once the person is acclimatized they can again begin their ascension.

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