All right, Indiana Jones. You can climb jungle vines and forage for your own food. You can locate running streams with surprising accuracy and you train for triathlons in your free time, we get it. Unfortunately, this puts you at higher risk for altitude related issues—because you probably think you’re too tough to be affected by altitude sickness.
The truth is, it can happen to anyone, at any time (granted you are at a high enough altitude: generally above 8,000 ft.). There are no real indicators as to whether or not it will affect one person over another, it’s just one of those odd things. Fortunately, it isn’t contagious.
So what is altitude sickness anyway? There are many forms of it, but the issues we are dealing with are 1. Oxygen and 2. Water. As you get higher in altitude, air pressure decreases and you get less oxygen every time you take a lungful of air. This lowered air pressure also causes water to evaporate more quickly from your system, causing dehydration.
Signs & Effects of Altitude Sickness, or AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness)
- Difficulty walking
- Generally feeling really, really terrible
- Having to urinate more frequently
- Heightened pulse
These are fairly common issues when traveling from sea level to a high altitude at a rapid rate, but they can be fatal. So let’s go over a game plan to keep you safe next time you decide to adventure a little closer to the stars.
How to Deal with Altitude Sickness
1. Avoid Rapid Ascents
If possible, sleep a night or two at an intermediate altitude, say between 5,000 and 7,000 ft., before your expedition into altitudes above 8,000 ft. Once above 8,000 ft., avoid ascending more than 1,000 ft. per day to camp.
Climbing higher each day is fine, but avoid sleeping higher than 1,000 ft. as compared to the previous night.
2. Try Coca Leaves & Gingko Biloba
Although not always readily available, these are natural remedies that increase the rate of acclimation for some people. Foresight can be key.
3. Drink Plenty of Water
It’s just a fact—you get dehydrated faster at higher altitudes. Not only are you exerting more energy, but water vapor is also lost from the lungs at a higher rate. With this in mind, alcohol consumption should be avoided entirely, as it will only dehydrate your body further.
Ibuprofen treats the symptoms of nausea and headache sometimes caused by altitude sickness, but the drug Diamox, or acetazolamide, decreases the time needed to acclimate to high altitude.
If altitude is seriously affecting you, the most effective solution is to descend to a lower altitude immediately. The end-stage of AMS is HACE, or High Altitude Cerebral Edema, which causes your brain to swell and stop working properly. HACE can be fatal if left untreated.
As with any intense physical activity, it is always best to consult your doctor before embarking on a trek at high altitude. Take your time, listen to your body, and be prepared to turn around if necessary.