High Altitude Illnesses

Altitude sickness (typically referred to as Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS) is brought on by climbing to a higher altitude too quickly without allowing time for your body to adjust to the changes in air pressure and oxygen level. The air above 8,000 feet is “thinner” meaning that each breath you take contains less oxygen than what you’re used to. When your body doesn’t have time to adjust to the lower oxygen levels at higher altitudes, it increases its breathing rate in an attempt to boost the blood’s oxygen, though this is not enough to return it to normal levels.

There are three main (common) altitude illnesses: Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE).

Acute Mountain Sickness

Pulmonary edema is a life-threatening medical emergency. It arises very quickly and has been known to cause death less than 40 hours after a rapid climb to 6000 feet. A warning sign is to observe the person who is the fittest in the group at the start of the climb. If that person’s fitness decreases quickly as he or she climbs higher, then he or she might have contracted it. Another sign is extreme weakness going uphill.

 

Signs + Symptoms

Symptoms include blue or gray lips or fingernails, a cough with bloody or foamy sputum, shortness of breath, general weakness, and a gurgling sound in the chest. If these symptoms occur, then immediately descend to a lower elevation as soon as possible in order to take no risks. Pulmonary edema can rapidly progress to coma and death if you keep on climbing. However, if you descend just a few hundreds meters, the symptoms will diminish rapidly.

 

Treatment

At this stage, ascent should stop. Rest, have frequent snacks and meals, take NSAIDs (Ibuprofen) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) as needed, and hydrate. Alcohol and sleeping medications (including medications such as Tylenol PM, etc.) are not recommended as they are respiratory suppressants. If the symptoms worsen or do not alleviate, stop your ascent immediately and descend to a lower altitude where the symptoms abate after a day or two of rest. In its most severe form, Acute Mountain Sickness can progress to either pulmonary edema (fluid on the lungs) or cerebral edema (swelling of the brain).

High Altitude Cerebral Edema

Acute Mountain Sickness is also often called Altitude Sickness. The symptoms of AMS can be unpleasant enough to spoil your climb. In some cases, it also can be fatal. However, if you understand the cause of AMS then you can take many steps to avoid it or minimize its effects.

Atmospheric pressure and the oxygen content of the air decrease in an approximately exponential manner as altitude increases. This means that as you climb higher, the breath you take contains less oxygen. For most climbers, this effect can become apparent at an altitude of just 6,000-8,000 ft (3000 m) above sea level.

Acclimatization is the resetting of your physiological mechanisms which allows the body to return oxygen levels in the tissues to normal or near-normal. As this process is not instantaneous, and when your rate of ascent is faster than the body’s ability to adjust to the gain in altitude, AMS occurs. The symptoms of AMS can be unpleasant, serious, or even fatal. It is therefore essential that your own rate of ascent should allow for this adjustment. Keep in mind that there is a lot of variation between individuals, but each person’s response to altitude is fairly constant on different occasions, given similar conditions and speed of ascent.

 

Signs + Symptoms

AMS develops usually in the first eight to 24 hours at high altitude. Below 6,000 feet (3000 m), it occurs less often. Symptoms can include:

  • Nausea (& possibly vomiting)
  • Lassitude & lethargy
  • Peripheral edema (swelling of hands, feet)

 

Treatment

At this stage, ascent should stop. Rest, have frequent snacks and meals, take NSAIDs (Ibuprofen) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) as needed, and hydrate. Alcohol and sleeping medications (including medications such as Tylenol PM, etc.) are not recommended as they are respiratory suppressants. If the symptoms worsen or do not alleviate, stop your ascent immediately and descend to a lower altitude where the symptoms abate after a day or two of rest.

In its most severe form, Acute Mountain Sickness can progress to either pulmonary edema (fluid on the lungs) or cerebral edema (swelling of the brain).

High Altitude Pulmonary Edema

Acute Mountain Sickness is also often called Altitude Sickness. The symptoms of AMS can be unpleasant enough to spoil your climb. In some cases, it also can be fatal. However, if you understand the cause of AMS then you can take many steps to avoid it or minimize its effects.

Atmospheric pressure and the oxygen content of the air decrease in an approximately exponential manner as altitude increases. This means that as you climb higher, the breath you take contains less oxygen. For most climbers, this effect can become apparent at an altitude of just 6,000-8,000 ft (3000 m) above sea level.

Acclimatization is the resetting of your physiological mechanisms which allows the body to return oxygen levels in the tissues to normal or near-normal. As this process is not instantaneous, and when your rate of ascent is faster than the body’s ability to adjust to the gain in altitude, AMS occurs. The symptoms of AMS can be unpleasant, serious, or even fatal. It is therefore essential that your own rate of ascent should allow for this adjustment. Keep in mind that there is a lot of variation between individuals, but each person’s response to altitude is fairly constant on different occasions, given similar conditions and speed of ascent.

 

Signs + Symptoms

AMS develops usually in the first eight to 24 hours at high altitude. Below 6,000 feet (3000 m), it occurs less often. Symptoms can include:

  • Nausea (& possibly vomiting)
  • Lassitude & lethargy
  • Peripheral edema (swelling of hands, feet)

 

Treatment

At this stage, ascent should stop. Rest, have frequent snacks and meals, take NSAIDs (Ibuprofen) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) as needed, and hydrate. Alcohol and sleeping medications (including medications such as Tylenol PM, etc.) are not recommended as they are respiratory suppressants. If the symptoms worsen or do not alleviate, stop your ascent immediately and descend to a lower altitude where the symptoms abate after a day or two of rest.

In its most severe form, Acute Mountain Sickness can progress to either pulmonary edema (fluid on the lungs) or cerebral edema (swelling of the brain).