Will your adventures be taking you into high-altitude environments this summer? If so, be careful—and do your research. Altitude affects everybody differently, and it’s important to understand what you’re getting into.
It’s Called “Atmospheric Pressure”
The first step? Stop saying that the air is thinner—because technically, the air itself isn’t changing as you climb higher. The troposphere (which stretches from sea level to roughly 65,000 feet) always contains 20% oxygen and nearly 80% nitrogen. What does change is the atmospheric pressure, which decreases as you ascend? At the summit of Mount Everest, for example, the atmospheric pressure is less than 30% of the pressure at sea level.
You don’t need to go to the summit of Mount Everest to feel changes in your body, though. According to the medical definition, anything above 8,000 feet (or 2,440 meters) is considered high altitude. It’s rare to have serious issues below 12,000 feet, but it’s different for every person every time. That’s one of the interesting things about altitude sickness: it can happen to anybody, regardless of age, physical conditioning, experience, or gender. All bodies are unique, and you’ll be most in tune with yours if you’re honest with yourself about what you feel.
That said, most people will experience at least some symptoms when traveling above 12,000 feet. Acute Mountain Sickness, or AMS, is the catch-all medical term for feeling shitty up high—and experts say it feels exactly like a righteous hangover. Symptoms include difficulty sleeping, fatigue, a mild to moderate headache, loss of appetite, nausea, an elevated heart rate, and shortness of breath. None of these symptoms are life-threatening, but they are your body’s way of giving you information. Slow down, stay hydrated, eat well, and rest as much as possible. Take ibuprofen or acetaminophen. For most climbers, AMS is manageable and will resolve with proper acclimatization.
For some people, though, it gets worse. There are two primary concerns at altitude: HACE and HAPE. HACE, or high altitude cerebral edema, is a build-up of fluid around the brain. Symptoms include a persistent headache, ataxia, and altered level of consciousness. HAPE, or high altitude pulmonary edema, is a build-up of fluid around the lungs. Symptoms include a persistent cough, shortness of breath, and pink phlegm. Both are every bit as serious as they sound, and both dictate an immediate descent and medical attention.
How can you prevent altitude sickness? Don’t rush. Scheduling lots of time to acclimatize are the best way to prevent issues. Be gentle with your body, and when in doubt, descend.
For more information about how to stay safe in the mountains, check out Wilderness Medicine by William W. Forgery, MD, and Altitude Illness: Prevention & Treatment by Stephen Bezruchka.