The route to Everest Base Camp is one of the highest treks in the world, taking you to altitudes way above 5000 meters. The human body needs to adapt to these altitudes, and the only way to do this, is to ascend gradually. Let’s dig a little deeper into what altitude sickness is and how you can avoid it.
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is a health condition that occurs when someone is exposed to low levels of oxygen at higher altitudes. AMS is a serious condition and as the name suggests acute. It needs to be dealt with immediately, as it is potentially life-threatening. Most people will experience some mild symptoms of altitude sickness. It’s important to be aware of these symptoms and act before symptoms become more severe. Below we break down the different forms of AMS and how you can reduce the risk of getting it.
It is key to know how to identify altitude illness. You may experience the following symptoms due to the jump in altitude: headache, lack of appetite, breathing difficulties, insomnia, nausea and vomiting. The intensity and severity of these symptoms may increase with altitude and an overall feeling of fatigue will take all your joy away. This may further deteriorate to one of these life-threatening conditions.
High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE): HAPE is a condition in which fluid accumulates in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe. Symptoms may include shortness of breath, a persistent cough, chest tightness, and an increased heart rate. It can be a life-threatening condition and requires immediate descent to lower altitudes and, in severe cases, medical treatment.
High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE): HACE is a more serious condition in which fluid accumulates in the brain. Symptoms may include severe headaches, confusion, loss of coordination, and altered mental status. HACE is also a medical emergency and requires immediate descent and medical attention.
10 ways of minimizing the risk of AMS
1. Gradual Ascent: One of the most effective ways to prevent AMS is to ascend gradually. When traveling to high altitudes, try to take several days to acclimatize before going higher. This allows your body to adapt to the reduced oxygen levels. All our treks in Nepal keep sufficient acclimatization into account.
2. Stay Hydrated: Dehydration can increase the risk of AMS, so drink plenty of fluids. Avoid excessive alcohol and caffeine consumption, as they can contribute to dehydration.
3. Diet: Consume a balanced diet with adequate carbohydrates and avoid heavy, fatty meals. Carbohydrates can help your body utilize oxygen more efficiently at high altitudes.
4. Medication: Some individuals may consider taking medication, such as acetazolamide (Diamox), to help prevent AMS. Consult with a healthcare professional before using any medication, and be aware of potential side effects.
5. Rest: Ensure you get enough sleep and rest during your ascent. Fatigue can increase the risk of AMS.
6. Avoid Overexertion: Pace yourself and avoid overexertion. Listen to your body, and if you experience symptoms of AMS, rest or descend to a lower altitude.
7. Descend if Symptoms Persist: If you experience symptoms of AMS, such as headache, nausea, dizziness, or difficulty breathing, it's crucial to descend to a lower altitude. Symptoms should not be ignored or dismissed.
8. Learn the Signs: Educate yourself and your travel companions about the signs and symptoms of AMS, and be vigilant in monitoring each other's condition.
9. Plan for Acclimatization Days: When trekking or mountaineering at high altitudes, plan for rest days to allow your body to acclimatize. This may involve ascending to higher altitudes during the day and descending to sleep at lower altitudes.
10. Maintain Altitude Awareness: Pay attention to the elevation you're at and the rate of ascent. Rapid ascents significantly increase the risk of AMS.
It's essential to understand that AMS can affect anyone, regardless of age, fitness level, or previous high-altitude experience. These days there are several tools to monitor your health at altitude. A widely-used (analog) method is the Lake Louise score card. It ticks the altitude symptoms while keeping the severity in mind. It’s a common tool used by guides. Nowadays, most trekking and mountain guides bring a blood oxygen saturation meter, which also measures the heart rate. These are key indicators whether a person adapts to altitude well or not.