Altitude Sickness 3 Levels And The Warning Signs

Altitude Sickness

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Altitude Sickness Awareness

Altitude Sickness is also known as Mountain Sickness. Altitude sickness is a collective of symptoms that might be experienced if you walk, climb to a higher elevation, or reach an altitude with low oxygen levels too quickly.

What Causes Altitude Sickness

Air pressure that surrounds you is called barometric or atmospheric pressure. Barometric and atmospheric pressure increases and decreases when you SCUBA dive or climb a mountain.

When you increase or decrease the altitude from sea level, the pressure drops, and there is less oxygen available in the air to breathe. The body is starved of oxygen at heights, and the air is thin. Under the waves, the body is a hollow vessel subject to compression in the reverse that causes nitrogen to gather in the bloodstream, which can lead to decompression sickness. Both types can lead to a fatal outcome if untreated.

Living in a location at a moderate altitude will allow your body to acclimatise to the surrounding air pressure. If you move to a higher altitude suddenly without time to acclimatise, your body feels the sudden effects of that pressure differential, and you will show the first signs of altitude sickness setting in.

Any time you are situated above 8,000 feet, without acclimatisation and an external oxygen supply, you are at high risk of developing severe altitude sickness resulting in death, which happens fast!

What Are The 3 Types Of Mountain Sickness

Altitude sickness is divided into three levels of severity:

  • AMS, or acute mountain sickness, is the mildest form and very common in mountain climbers the globe over. The symptoms can feel like a hangover, including dizziness, headache, muscle aches, and nausea.

  • HAPE or High-altitude pulmonary edema is a fluid build-up in the lungs that effectively drowns the climber. HAPE can be reversed if caught and treated in time and is extremely dangerous to life-threatening. HAPE is the most common cause of death from altitude sickness.

  • HACE or High-altitude cerebral edema is the most severe form of altitude sickness and happens when fluid builds up in the brain. It, too, is life-threatening and needs immediate medical attention. The chances of surviving HACE are in the realm of miraculous. Time is critical, and as a result of the location for rescue usually being inaccessible to rapid response and weather conditions that prevent helicopters from operating in set conditions, a large number of trekkers who visit Nepal, Tibet, K2, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India leave in a coffin.

Altitude Sickness Symptoms You Might Display

  • Shortness of breath
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue and loss of energy
  • Problems with sleep
  • Loss of appetite

Symptoms typically manifest after 6 to 24 hours of reaching a higher elevation. If you stay at that elevation or drop back down to a lower level to acclimatise, symptoms can resolve within a day or two as your body adjusts to the change in altitude.

If you have a moderate but increasing case of altitude sickness, your symptoms might feel more intense and not improve. Instead of feeling better as time goes on, and with medications, deterioration sets in and you will feel increasingly worse. You will experience a marked increase in the shortness of your breath and how much oxygen you can inhale. At the same time, fatigue becomes more pronounced as it is harder for your body to do simple things on less oxygen.

 You may also develop the following on an increasing scale of severity:

  • Loss of coordination and trouble walking
  • A severe headache that doesn’t get better with medication
  • A tightening in your chest
  • Struggling for enough air to fill your lungs

If you develop a severe form of altitude sickness like HAPE or HACE, you will experience:

  • Confusion, disorientation, impaired cognitive ability
  • Shortness of breath, gasping for air even at rest
  • Inability to walk
  • A cough that produces a white or frothy pink substance
  • Coma

Does Altitude Sickness Affect Everyone

Anyone of any age can develop altitude sickness. Factors like fitness, age, experience, or health have no bearing on altitude sickness.

Physically active people at a higher elevation are more likely to get Altitude sickness due to undertaking activity requiring higher levels of oxygen in a less plentiful environment.

Your chance of getting altitude sickness depends on several factors.

  • How quickly you climb from a lower elevation to a higher elevation
  • How high you climb above 3000 ft.
  • The altitude where you set up a campsite to rest up
  • Having certain illnesses like diabetes or lung disease can be a contributing factor.
  • People who have sickle cell anaemia, COPD, unstable angina, a high-risk pregnancy, heart failure, or cystic fibrosis are less likely to be able to tolerate changes in altitude. 

How Is Altitude Sickness Treated

If you get a headache accompanied by one or more listed symptoms linked to altitude sickness within a day or two of changing your elevation, you might have developed mild altitude sickness. For mild symptoms, you can try staying at your current altitude to see if your body adjusts and medicinal agents for relieving headaches and muscle aches. Rest, keep warm, and have plenty of fluids. Don’t progress to a higher elevation until your symptoms have completely resolved.

If they do not resolve, return to a lower altitude, and seek medical assessment promptly.

To treat HACE, you require a steroid called dexamethasone. If you have HAPE, you will need supplemental oxygen and hospitalisation. You may also require additional medications and rapid movement to a lower altitude.

Can You Prevent Altitude Sickness From Occurring

Acclimatisation is the best way to lower your chance of developing altitude sickness by slowly allowing your body to become accustomed to the changes in air pressure as you travel to higher elevations.

Some Basic Guidelines For Acclimatisation

  • Start your journey below 5,000 feet. 
  • If you fly into a zone above 5000 ft and can’t spend time at a lower elevation to acclimatise, the drug acetazolamide can help speed up acclimatisation with medical supervision and clearance. Webpage link: you walk, hike, or climb over 10,000 ft, only elevate an additional 1,000 feet per day. For every 3,000 feet you climb, rest at least one full 24-hour period at that height.
  • “Climb high and sleep low”: If you climb over 1,000 ft daily, return to a lower altitude to sleep.
  • Drink plenty of fluid and ensure, ideally, 70% of your calories are coming from carbs.
  • Don’t use tobacco, alcohol, or medications such as sleeping pills, especially for the first 48 hours. Caffeine is fine if you normally drink it.
  • Don’t vigorously exercise for the first 48 hours.
  • Know how to identify the first signs of altitude sickness.
  • Move to a lower elevation immediately if you have these symptoms.

First Aid Course Experts

Not too many people will hit the mountain ranges at height but having First Aid knowledge and the ability to recognise when someone is in trouble and showing signs of any illnesses or sickness is a skill anyone with a Basic level First Aid can provide.

Consider taking a FACE first aid course today.

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