Travel tips: How to deal with altitude sickness

Many areas now frequented by tourists pose a risk.

Hiker in distance at top of mountain path

You don’t have to be at the peak of Mount Everest for altitude sickness to strike. In fact, symptoms may occur at any altitude above 7,000 feet.

What is altitude sickness?

As we ascend, the partial pressure of oxygen in the air decreases, and we have less oxygen for our red blood cells to deliver to the heart, brain and lungs. The body responds by increasing heart and respiratory rate and over time producing more red blood cells.

Not all changes are positive. There can be constriction of pulmonary circulation, leakage of fluid from the blood vessels and swelling of the brain.The most common altitude related syndrome is acute mountain sickness (AMS). It resembles a hangover with headache, nausea, vomiting dizziness and insomnia.

If symptoms are ignored and ascent is continued AMS can progress to high altitude cerebral edema (HACE). In addition to above symptoms unsteadiness and irrational behavior can occur. HACE will proceed to coma and death if not recognized and treated promptly. High altitude pulmonary edema, (HAPE), is characterized by decreased exercise performance, dry cough and shortness of breath. It may coexist with AMS or HACE and if unrecognized, coma and death may be the result.

How to avoid altitude sickness

To avoid altitude illness in any form, follow this advice:

  • Avoid rapid ascent when possible. Climb slowly;
  • Climb high and sleep low. Sleeping altitude is particularly important. This should not increase by more than 1,000 feet per day. Schedule day of rest every three days;
  • Avoid sedatives and tranquilizers, which may depress respiration. Hypothermia will exacerbate symptoms so dress warmly;
  • Avoid alcohol. It will have greater effects at high altitudes;
  • Stay well hydrated;
  • A diet high in carbohydrates and low in salt may be beneficial.

How do you treat altitude sickness?

If you must ascend rapidly or have a history of altitude illness consider the use of Diamox for prevention. It can also be used for treatment of mild altitude illness. Diamox contains sulfa, and should be avoided by anyone with a history of sulfa allergy. Mild symptoms of AMS may be treated with rest, Diamox, and simple analgesics.

HACE and HAPE may need to be treated urgently. Most important treatment is rapid descent.

For more information about how to prepare for your travels call 512-901-4486.