Environments high above sea level pose cold temperatures, increased UV radiation, low air pressure and low oxygen. Although the human body can adapt, it’s important to properly acclimatize when climbing or hiking to improve comfort and sleep, boost athletic performance and prevent altitude sickness. Altitude sickness can lead to symptoms including headache and lightheadedness, nausea, vomiting, exhaustion and insomnia, and in severe cases can become a medical emergency. If you’re planning to climb to a high elevation, proper preparation is key. Take a look at our best tips to prevent and treat altitude sickness.
What is Altitude Sickness?
Altitude sickness can happen when you travel to a high altitude too quickly. If you’ve ever hiked up a mountain and felt yourself getting lightheaded or nauseous, you were probably experiencing altitude sickness. Also called acute mountain sickness, altitude sickness makes it difficult to breathe because you’re not able to take in enough oxygen. Symptoms happen when your body tries to adjust to the lower air pressure and lower oxygen levels at higher altitudes. You may be at a higher risk for altitude sickness if you have a lung or heart condition, are pregnant, live at low elevation, or have had altitude sickness in the past.
What Causes Altitude Sickness?
If you have less oxygen in your blood, your heart and lungs have to work harder, which raises your pulse and breathing rate. On average, the human body needs one to three days to become acclimated to a change in altitude. If you don’t spend enough time acclimatizing to a new altitude before progressing further, you have a higher risk of developing altitude sickness. The body may also respond to a change in altitude by altering blood acidity level, lung pressure, electrolyte levels, and fluid and salt balance. Rising to higher altitudes can also cause fluid to leak from tiny blood vessels, leading to a potentially dangerous build up of fluid in the lungs and brain.
What Are the Symptoms of Altitude Sickness?
- Lightheadedness and dizziness
- Exhaustion or weakness
- Reduced performance and coordination
- Swelling of the hands, feet and face
- Pins and needles
How to Prevent Altitude Sickness
1. Ascend Gradually
The best way to prevent altitude sickness is to ascend up the mountain gradually. Avoid travelling from a low elevation to an evolution higher than 9,000 feet above sea level in one day. If possible, spend a few days at 8,000-9,000 feet before travelling to a higher level. This gives your body time to adjust to the lower oxygen levels.
2. Drink Water
Staying hydrated is super important to prevent altitude sickness. Symptoms of dehydration are similar to altitude sickness, so be sure to drink water regularly during your climb. Climbing and hiking take a toll on your body, leading to increased sweat and water loss, which needs to be replenished. Ideally you should drink 4 to 6 litres of water per day while climbing, although this can vary due to water loss and exertion.
3. Do Day Trips
Altitude sickness is typically more of a concern when sleeping at high elevations. Start out by taking day trips for acclimatization, but sleep at lower levels to get the necessary oxygen. If you experience any symptoms of altitude sickness, do not sleep at elevation. Descend to a lower elevation to sleep with more substantial air.
4. Don’t Drink or Exercise for 48 Hours
Do not drink alcohol or do any heavy exercise for at least the first 48 hours after you arrive at an elevation above 8,000 feet. This can bring on symptoms of altitude sickness, or make them worse. Allow your body to rest and adjust as needed. It’s best not to drink alcohol at all, but if you want to have a drink, make sure to wait.
5. Diet Matters
You’re going to want to eat extra carbs when you’re at a higher altitude since your body needs more calories. This will lower your risk of altitude sickness. Iron is also important for health and performance at elevation since it’s a major component of hemoglobin, a type of protein that carries oxygen from the lungs to the cells of the body. If you don’t have adequate iron intake, you’re more likely to experience fatigue and altitude sickness.
How to Treat Altitude Sickness
1. Stop Ascending Immediately
If you’re climbing a mountain and develop any of the symptoms of altitude sickness, you should stop ascending immediately and rest until your symptoms have cleared. Don’t go up any further until your symptoms have disappeared completely. You should strongly consider descending to a lower altitude, especially if you’re going to sleep.
2. Rest and Hydrate
If you’re experiencing altitude sickness, make sure to rest and hydrate. You can explore the area, but take it easy, and limit any walking or activity. Drink lots of water and do not drink any alcohol. It’s also beneficial to restore your electrolyte balance. Drink sports drinks, coconut water or take an electrolyte supplement during your trip and avoid high-sodium foods, to ensure the balance is maintained.
3. Take Medicine
You can take over-the-counter medicine to help with your symptoms. Try Advil or Aleve for a headache, or take medicines that reduce the feeling of being nauseous or sick to your stomach if necessary.
When to See a Doctor
If you experience severe symptoms of altitude sickness, you must be taken immediately to an elevation of no higher than 4,000 feet. Get to a healthcare provider as soon as possible as you may need hospitalization. Severe symptoms include extreme fatigue, severe difficulty breathing even at rest, and difficulty walking.
Altitude sickness can be scary, but if you prepare and are cautious while climbing, hopefully you can prevent any serious symptoms, if any at all.
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