Altitude sickness or sometimes also called “mountain sickness” is a group of symptoms that can strike if you walk or climb to a higher elevation too quickly. As the pressure of the air that surrounds us drops as altitude increases and less oxygen becomes available our body needs time to adjust to the change in pressure.
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 – short breath, dizziness, headache, muscle aches, nausea, problems with sleep, loss of appetite.
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 of altidude sickness
Symptoms usually come on within 12 to 24 hours of reaching a higher elevation and then get better within a day or two as the body adjusts. In a more moderate case of altitude sickness the symptoms might feel more intense and not improve with over-the-counter medications. Instead of feeling better as time goes on, people start to feel worse. 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.
When we hiked Mt. Meru which has a total elevation of 4,566 AMSL every single member of our group of ten and even the guides experienced symptoms of altitude sickness during the trip, varying from mild courses with a bit of nausea up to more severe cases featuring acute headaches lasting for several days and vomiting. The best way to prevent altitude sickness is through acclimatization. That means you let your body slowly get used to the changes in air pressure as you travel to higher elevations. A good method is the “Climb high and sleep low” rule: If you have to climb over 300 m in a day, make sure you come back down to a lower altitude to sleep.
Drink 2-3 liters of water every day and make sure about 70% of your calories are coming from carbs. Don’t use tobacco, alcohol, or other medications, such as sleeping pills. However ibuprofen has been proven to be a good treatment against altitude sickness so we recommend you stock up on ibu before leaving on the trip. Studies shown that starting to take ibuprofen six hours before climbing to high elevations and then taking it every 6 hours while climbing may help prevent altitude sickness. If you encounter nausea and loss of appetite on the last stage of the trip an energy bar or jelly as used by long distance runners or cyclers may come in handy as they are light, neutral in taste and at the same time providing the needed level of sugar going directly into the blood system.
At all times when climbing a mountain make sure you are monitoring your condition and wellbeing and if you start to feel unsafe and experience acute symptoms make sure the guides escort you down or even bring you back to the valley to seek medical help.
The outlook for altitude sickness depends on how quickly you can move to a lower altitude and how serious the symptoms are. In general symptoms of altitude sickness usually disappear in just a few days at lower altitudes. Usually activities at high altitude can also be resumed after the symptoms are gone. However, the condition can be fatal and not to be underestimated if the symptoms are severe and you remain at a high altitude.