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Altitude Sickness

There is so much less oxygen in the high mountains that it is not surprising that travelling to high altitude causes people to feel unwell, but how this shortage of oxygen actually leads to altitude sickness is still not fully understood. Most people remain well at altitudes of up to 2500m, the equivalent barometric pressure to which aeroplane cabins are pressurised. However, even at 1500m above sea level you may notice more breathlessness than normal on exercise and night vision may be impaired. Above 2500m, the symptoms of altitude sickness become more noticeable.

In fact the term “altitude sickness” can be used to describe any altitude-related illness. There are three forms of altitude sickness that can affect people very quickly after they have ascended to high altitude.

These forms of altitude sickness are called:

If you live at altitude for many years, you may be at risk of developing another illness, called chronic mountain sickness or Monge’s disease.

Acute Mountain Sickness

The commonest illness at altitude is acute mountain sickness. This is sometimes colloquially referred to as altitude sickness or mountain sickness and in South America it is called “soroche”. Most people experience acute mountain sickness as a relatively mild, self-limiting illness.

What are the symptoms?

The most prominent symptom is usually headache, and most people also experience nausea and even vomiting, lethargy, dizziness and poor sleep. Symptoms are very similar to a really bad hangover. Acute mountain sickness can be diagnosed using a self-assessment score sheet. If you have recently ascended to over 2500m, have a headache and your total score is 3 points or more on the score sheet, then you have acute mountain sickness.

Who gets acute mountain sickness?

Anyone who travels to altitudes of over 2500m is at risk of acute mountain sickness. Normally it doesn’t become noticeable until you have been at that altitude for a few hours. Part of the mystery of acute mountain sickness is that it is difficult to predict who will be affected. There are many stories of fit and healthy people being badly limited by symptoms of acute mountain sickness, while their older companions have felt fine.

There are a number of factors that are linked to a higher risk of developing the condition. The higher the altitude you reach and the faster your rate of ascent, the more likely you are to get acute mountain sickness. On the Apex high altitude research expeditions, flying from sea level to the Bolivian capital, La Paz (3600m), caused over half of the expedition members to have acute mountain sickness on the day after they arrived. If you have a previous history of suffering from acute mountain sickness, then you are probably more likely to get it again. Older people tend to get less acute mountain sickness – but this could be because they have more common sense and ascend less quickly.

What causes acute mountain sickness?

How a shortage of oxygen leads to acute mountain sickness is not known. Some scientists believe that it is due to swelling of the brain but the evidence for this hypothesis is not conclusive. The theory is that In susceptible individuals, swelling could cause a small increase in the pressure inside the skull and lead to symptoms of acute mountain sickness. The swelling may be due to increased blood flow to the brain or leakiness of blood vessels in the brain.

How is acute mountain sickness treated?

It is better to prevent acute mountain sickness than to try to treat it. Ascending at a sensible rate (300m gain in altitude per day), should mean that your body can acclimatise as you ascend and so you will be less likely to develop acute mountain sickness. However, if you need to go up more quickly, you could consider taking a drug called acetazolamide (also known as Diamox). There is now good evidence [BMJ. 2004;328:797] that acetazolamide reduces symptoms of acute mountain sickness in trekkers, although it does have some unusual side-effects: it makes your hands and feet tingle, and it makes fizzy drinks taste funny.

If you do have acute mountain sickness, the best treatment is descent. Painkillers may ease the headache, but they don’t treat the condition. Acetazolamide may be helpful, especially if you need to stay at the same altitude, and resting for a day or two might give your body time to recover. It is essential that you should NEVER go up higher if you have acute mountain sickness.

If a travelling companion has symptoms of acute mountain sickness and becomes confused or unsteady, or develops an extremely severe headache or vomiting, they may have a life-threatening condition called high altitude cerebral oedema (HACE). Read more about HACE.

by A.A. Roger Thompson
Last updated June 2007

SUMMARY
The term “altitude sickness” can be used to describe any altitude-related illness

The commonest illness at altitude is acute mountain sickness (AMS)

Symptoms of AMS are very similar to a really bad hangover

The cause of acute mountain sickness is not known

Prevention is better than treatment

Descent is the most important treatment

"It is essential that you should NEVER go up higher if you have acute mountain sickness"



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