Prevent Altitude Sickness while Trekking

By Jan Bakker

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Prevent Altitude Sickness while Trekking
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Acute Mountain Sickness, or AMS, is a big health hazard when you are going trekking at high altitude. It's an indiscriminate condition that can strike anyone, whether you're Reinhold Messner or an occasional hiker. Age, experience, gender and even fitness do not determine whether you're going to get altitude sickness or not. At Bookatrekking.com we offer a variety of treks and climbs at high altitude. If you're planning a trek to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania or even climb the 6088 meter high Huayna Potosi in Bolivia it's essential you learn about AMS.

Our Trekking Expert for Asia, Jan, has considerable altitude experience having climbed a 7105 meter high mountain in Tajikistan. He delves deeper into what AMS is, how to prevent it and what to do when someone shows symptoms of altitude sickness.

What is Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness is a condition with a variety of symptoms. Also known as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) or simply Mountain Sickness, it is the health effect that kicks in when exposed to lower amounts of oxygen at high altitude. At 1,500m (5,000ft) you may start feeling the elevation and have to catch your breath while doing exercise. Symptoms of AMS usually start showing at 2,400m (8,000ft) and above. These include headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, lack of sleep and appetite. If you ignore the symptoms and fail to act upon them, AMS can progress to more severe conditions like High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or even High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). Although HAPE and HACE can be deadly, there are ways to prevent these conditions. Our itineraries are designed to allow for adequate acclimatization, but it cannot rule out AMS. In the next chapter we'll go through the symptoms and Jan shares his experience with the symptoms of altitude sickness.

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Altitude Sickness Symptoms

Altitude sickness feels like a terrible hangover. I usually experience the milder symptoms of AMS on my high altitude adventures. Below 3000 meters I don't feel anything but around above that I start sensing that my body is responding to the lack of oxygen in the air. First I notice my heart rate goes up. It needs to pump around more blood to transport oxygen to all the body parts. These days I regularly climb peaks in East Africa that are above 4000 meters. The huts are typically located around 3500 meters. This is where I definitely experience symptoms like a light headache and a lack of sleep. On the treks I do in Central Asia and the Himalayas it's a little different. Often multiple nights are spent above 4000 meters and occasionally the jump in altitude gain is too big. The headache is a more severe, I loose my appetite and cough a lot more, especially when the air is dry. Luckily I never had to vomit because of altitude sickness. These symptoms are still mild enough, but you get closer to the point when it starts to get serious. Below you can find a list of AMS symptoms.

Headache: AMS is often accompanied by a severe headache, which is usually throbbing and feels worse with movement.

Nausea: Many people with AMS feel nauseated, which can lead to vomiting in severe cases.

Dizziness: AMS can cause a feeling of dizziness, which can be accompanied by lightheadedness or a feeling of faintness.

Fatigue: AMS can cause a feeling of fatigue or exhaustion, which can make it difficult to perform even simple tasks.

Shortness of breath: AMS can cause a feeling of shortness of breath, which can be accompanied by chest tightness or coughing.

Swelling of hands, feet and face: Some people experience the swelling of extremities and face.

If you experience a combination of these symptoms and ignore these you can develop HAPE and HACE. Below a little more about what these conditions are

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Altitude Sickness Symptoms

What Are HAPE or HACE And When Do You Take Action To Avoid Getting It?

Severe altitude sickness may develop in the following conditions, that are potentially lethal. These are:

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, pink-ish saliva, 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.

It's important that you look after each other, especially at higher altitudes. People who have developing HACE or HAPE are often denying something is wrong with them, fuelled by the ambition to finish a trekking route or to reach a summit. It's good to have a chat with your trekking partner to see if they are ok. What symptoms does the person experience? Our teams on high altitude treks are trained to recognise AMS and always carry a blood saturation monitor, that indicates someone's health at altitude. In the next chapter we'll talk about how to prevent AMS and what to do when you are diagnozed with severe AMS / developing HACE and HAPE.

What Are HAPE or HACE And When Do You Take Action To Avoid Getting It?

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 places like Nepal, Pakistan and Africa 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. Use a Buddy System

Look after each other. When you're climbing in a group, it's a good idea to buddy up with one of the team members. This way somebody can check you on your state of health and vice versa.

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.

A Final Word on Altitude Sickness

When you're on your way to Everest, altitude sickness is a serious consideration. Most people experience some form of altitude sickness when trekking at high altitude. Dealing with it is a matter of listening to your body, being honest to yourself and to others what state you’re in and accept the fact that you may have to alter your plans due to this. When your goal is to reach that summit or to complete the famous trek you always dreamed about, it will be there next year and the year after. AMS is real and sacrificing your health or even your life is not worth any mountain.

*The information provided is a collection of tips and tricks collected from various sources. It is under no circumstance intended to replace the advice of medical professionals.

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