What Is Altitude Sickness?
Altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), is a condition that can occur when individuals ascend to high altitudes too quickly, typically above 8,000 feet (2,400 meters). It is caused by the reduced availability of oxygen and the decreased air pressure at higher elevations. Decreased air pressure leads to a lower partial pressure of oxygen. This change in oxygen availability affects the functioning of your body’s tissues and organs and if ascended too rapidly, the body may struggle to acclimatize.
Risk of Altitude Sickness
Anyone can develop altitude sickness, regardless of age, gender, or fitness level. However, certain factors can increase the risk. Rapid ascent to high altitudes without proper acclimatization is the primary risk factor. Other factors include a previous history of altitude sickness, genetic predisposition, respiratory conditions, and underlying cardiovascular diseases.
Prevention of Altitude Sickness
The best way to prevent altitude sickness is to ascend gradually, allowing the body time to acclimate to the changing conditions. Here are some tips to minimize the risk:
- Gradual ascent: Increase your elevation gradually, especially when ascending above 8,000 feet. Take regular breaks during your climb to allow your body to adjust.
- Hydration: Drink plenty of fluids, preferably water, to stay hydrated. Avoid excessive alcohol and caffeinated beverages, as they can contribute to dehydration.
- Physical fitness: Maintaining good physical fitness before your trip can help improve your body’s ability to adapt to altitude changes.
- Medications: Consult your healthcare provider about medications that can help prevent altitude sickness. Acetazolamide, for example, is commonly prescribed to promote acclimatization.
Treatment for Altitude Sickness
If you or someone you’re with develops altitude sickness, it’s important to take prompt action. Here are some measures to consider:
- Descent: The primary treatment for altitude sickness is to descend to a lower altitude. If symptoms are mild, descending a few thousand feet can often alleviate the condition.
- Rest and hydration: Take ample rest, as physical exertion can worsen symptoms. Drink plenty of fluids to maintain hydration.
- Medications: Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help alleviate symptoms such as headache.
- Oxygen therapy: In severe cases, supplemental oxygen may be required to increase oxygen levels in the body.
Altitude sickness should never be ignored or underestimated. If symptoms persist or worsen, it’s crucial to seek medical attention immediately, as more severe forms of altitude sickness, such as high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), can be life-threatening if left untreated.
Connect with your Rockdoc Travel Medicine Professional here to book a consultation to discuss your trip and obtain the prescription and vaccinations to travel with peace of mind.
We have made every effort to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the provided information, however, it is not feasible for us to update daily. Please book a virtual consultation with one of our Travel Medicine Professionals for current, personalized advice and answers to any questions you may have.
Symptoms of Altitude Sickness
Altitude sickness can present with various symptoms, which may range from mild to severe. Common symptoms include:
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty sleeping
Some individuals may also experience shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, and a general feeling of malaise. It’s important to note that symptoms can vary from person to person, and they may not necessarily appear immediately upon arrival at high altitudes.
Available travel vaccinations and medications
We offer the following travel vaccinations and medications:
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