Altitude Sickness - How To Prevent & Treat It

jen-hiking-breckenridge

I couldn't even take a few steps up the stairs without stopping for a breath. 

The first time we went to Colorado, we flew straight to LA from Australia, took a connecting flight to Denver and then went straight to Breckenridge. To put it into perspective, the elevation at the town of Breckenridge is 2926m (9600ft). In Australia our highest mountain, Mount Kosciuszko, has an elevation of 2228m (7309ft) at the summit. That is some serious elevation gain! I hadn't even thought about the effects of high altitude until I experienced them first hand. Walking up stairs was a challenge. And when I caught the chairlift to the highest point at Breckenridge Ski Resort, which is about another 1000m, my head was spinning.

Causes Of Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness (also called mountain sickness) occurs when a person increases their elevation too quickly. Both air pressure and air density decrease as altitude increases. The faster the ascent, the more likely it is that you will suffer from altitude sickness. Your body does not have time to adjust, resulting in hypobaric hypoxia, where oxygen fails to reach the body's tissues. 

There are three types of altitude sickness:

  1. AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) - this is mild altitude sickness and is the most common.
  2. HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema) - excess fluid in the lungs.
  3. HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Oedema) - excess fluid in the brain.

Altitude sickness isn't a serious condition most of the time and you'll find that your body adjusts fairly quickly. However, if you are ascending above 2500m (8200ft) for a period of time then you need to be much more aware of how your body is responding. Many deaths have resulted from preventable altitude sickness due to fluid build up in the brain or lungs.

Symptoms of altitude sickness

Not everyone experiences symptoms of altitude sickness in the same way. Mick for example, felt pretty good overall, just a little less fit than usual. I felt like I had a hangover, got nosebleeds and out of breath when climbing stairs. On the other hand, a friend of ours had to spend some time in bed and had bad headaches.

Acute Mountain Sickness symptoms may include:

  • fatigue
  • shortness of breath with little exertion
  • decreased appetite
  • nausea
  • headache
  • nosebleeds
  • frequent urination
  • weakness
  • dizziness
  • loss of coordination
  • vomiting
  • impaired night vision
  • trouble sleeping.

Usually these symptoms are worse on the second day at altitude, and should disappear in 4 to 5 days. 

If you feel your symptoms are not getting better after a couple of days, then I suggest going to see a doctor just to be on the safe side. If you have symptoms more severe than those listed above such as a breathlessness at resting, fever, hallucinations, trouble walking and irrational behaviour then you many have HAPE or HACE. You will need to seek medical attention immediately and if possible get down to a lower altitude.

If you have experienced altitude sickness before, then it is likely that you will experience it again. 

Preventing And Treating Altitude Sickness

It's hard to know exactly how your body is going to react with high altitude or how long it will take to acclimate and recover, but you can certainly stack the odds in your favour by taking measures to prevent and treat altitude sickness.

Listen to your body. I know, I know. You want to get up the mountain with the crew and shred like you've never shredded before. But if you feel like you've just completed 5 rounds in a boxing ring, then your body is trying to tell you something. Take it easy and rest. But don't curl up into a ball and spend the day in bed. Respiration decreases when you're sleeping which will increase altitude sickness symptoms. Do some light activity, like exploring the town instead.

Do not use sleeping tablets. They can lead to an increase in hypoxia (deficiency in oxygen reaching the tissues) due to their central nervous system depressing action. It will only make things worse.

Spend a day in a nearby town at lower elevation. If you can, the best way to reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness is to slowly acclimatise. For example, instead of going from LA to Denver to Breckenridge all in the one day, it would have been better for us to stay a night in LA followed by a night in Denver. 

Stay hydrated. Altitude sickness is almost always accompanied by dehydration so make sure you drink loads of water. You will lose fluid with acclimatisation and if you've been travelling, you're most likely already dehydrated. Tobacco and alcohol will also dehydrate you so limit consumption if you can. I know, you're on holidays and you want to have a few drinks! I hear you. Just load up on the water and go at least one for one with each alcoholic beverage.

Keep fit. Being fit won't prevent altitude sickness but it may alleviate the symptoms. One of the most common symptoms is shortness of breath so if your fitness level is up, you might not be as impacted by this.

Descend to a lower altitude. Obvious choice, and quickest way to reduce symptoms, but not always an option. There's no way I would have left the crew to go spend a day in Denver acclimatising!

Oxygen & hydration therapy. I noticed on our last trip to Colorado that there were businesses advertising oxygen and hydration therapy for altitude sickness. I can't recommend this as I haven't tried it but it is an option worth investigating if you are feeling pretty shabby.

Take care of your buddies. Having altitude sickness might mean that your buddies aren't at the top of their game and thinking straight. They may be in denial or trying to struggle through it, so recognise the symptoms and take care of them.

If you are planning on travelling above 2500m for a length of time, then read this great resource from Altitude.org which goes into more detail about HAPE and HACE altitude sickness.

Have you experienced altitude sickness? Do you have any remedies that have worked for you? Let me know in the comments below! (Make sure you click on 'subscribe via e-mail' to be notified when we write back)

Jen

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