Altitude Sickness: How to Prevent, Recognise and Treat It
Altitude sickness is an issue faced by many adventurous travellers and it’s not just those trekking to Everest base camp Trek, Annapurna Circuit Trek, Manaslu Circuit Trek or climbing mountains like Island Peak (6,189m) or any other trekking peaks in Nepal, as you might expect. Altitude sickness, also known as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), can be encountered by anyone reaching heights of 2,500m and above, so it’s even possible for skiers in the Alps to experience it, particularly in higher resorts such as Zermatt (Switzerland) and Val Thorens (France, other coutry too).
It is therefore important that all travellers are aware of altitude sickness and the potential consequences of not recognizing and treating symptoms before they develop into anything more serious. While most cases are mild and perfectly manageable, some cases (especially those above 3,500m) can develop into potentially life-threatening conditions, so it is vital to recognise the symptoms and treat them promptly.
Symptoms of mild altitude sickness include:
- Shortness of breath
- Decreased energy levels
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Trouble sleeping
Symptoms of severe altitude sickness include:
- Worsening of mild symptoms
- Confusion and irrational behaviour
- Uncontrollable coughing
- Blurred vision
- Coughing up fluid
Strangely, there is no way to predict who might develop altitude sickness. A seasoned climber is just as likely to develop it as someone who has never been at altitude before.
There is no correlation between the level of fitness and the chance of developing altitude sickness – even the fittest and healthiest of individuals may suffer. And don’t be fooled into a false sense of security – just because you have not developed altitude sickness before, doesn’t mean you won’t in the future.
There are many things you can do to reduce your risk of altitude sickness such as:
It is important to climb slowly and take time to acclimate. It is recommended to climb no more than 300m-500m a day, especially when above 3,000m.
Keep yourself well hydrated with water and avoid alcohol
Make sure to keep your energy levels up by eating a high-calorie diet
Medicines (see below)
There are many medications available, including herbal remedies, that are intended to prevent or alleviate symptoms of altitude sickness. Only one of these drugs, acetazolamide (commonly called Diamox), has been shown to be safe and effective. This is a prescription-only drug so you need to visit a travel clinic before your trip to get it.
Altitude sickness causes chemical changes in the blood and acetazolamide works by balancing these chemical changes, thereby reducing symptoms. Unfortunately, as with every drug, acetazolamide has side effects. One of the most common side effects is an increased need to urinate, which can be frustrating during trekking.
Tingling in the hands and feet is also common. Keep your hands and feet warm while trekking in cold weather and check regularly if you are experiencing this.
Mild altitude sickness can be managed by treating the symptoms. Basic pain relievers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen can help relieve headaches, while promethazine can help reduce nausea and vomiting. Acetazolamide can also be used to treat altitude sickness if not already taken as a preventative measure. Consult your pharmacy to discuss dosages for both prevention and treatment.
If you have mild altitude sickness you should not ascend to high altitudes until your symptoms have sufficiently resolved. If you find that your symptoms are getting progressively worse and are not improving with treatment, stop immediately and seek medical attention before the condition becomes more serious.
So in summary, the advice is simple: use preventative medicine, climb slowly, rehydrate and treat when symptoms appear. If you feel like you’re getting worse, it’s time to admit defeat and get down.