Altitude Sickness: The Best Ways to Recognize And Deal With It

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)

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Nau­sea
  • Con­fu­sion
  • Dif­fi­cul­ty walk­ing
  • Gen­er­al­ly feel­ing real­ly, real­ly ter­ri­ble
  • Hav­ing to uri­nate more fre­quent­ly
  • Hyper­ven­ti­la­tion
  • Nose­bleed
  • Drowsi­ness
  • 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.

4. Med­icate
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.

5. Descend
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.