Altitude sickness is something that is common not only experienced by backpackers and hikers but also by people who travel most of the time. In other words, anyone who is traveling, climbing, trekking, or just hanging out at a high altitude or above sea level might experience altitude sickness.
There are 3 types of altitude sickness:
1. Acute Mountain Sickness(AMS) is simple and most common of the three. It is also the mildest and can be experienced by anyone.
The remaining two types post a severe treat and can be fatal if not handled properly,
2. High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) is when the brain starts swelling.
3. High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) is when fluids start to fill the lungs.
Now that we know what we’re dealing with, let us dig a bit more to know what are the causes of altitude sickness, its symptoms, how to administer first aid treatment and how we can prevent it from at least not happening on our hikes.
CAUSES OF ALTITUDE SICKNESS
Here’s the deal, when you experience symptoms of altitude sickness, your body is responding to obtaining less oxygen from the "thinner" air found at higher elevations than it is used to.
We may not actually see air, but air pressure greatly depends on the weight of air above us. This is the reason why in higher altitudes there is lower air pressure and low air pressure means that there is a reduced number of molecules from breathable gas, in other words, reduced oxygen for us to breath.
Another thing is that, this phenomenon can have an effect on where we actually stay and live. For example, if you live at a place above sea level or at a higher altitude such as on mountains, your body might experience symptoms on low elevations. This is because our body is inclined and well adapted to elevations we are used to. The concept is the same for most of us who live at lower elevations. Since our body is accustomed to living at lower elevations, surely it will react to symptoms of altitude sickness when exposed to places with higher elevations.
SYMPTOMS AND TREATMENTS
The most effective way of treating a person with altitude sickness is to bring him down at lower altitudes and let his body cope up and re-stabilize again. Remember that when someone is experiencing altitude sickness, it is better to stop your ascent and go back down. Do not try to “tough it out” for this may cause serious threat to the person and can be fatal to them.
Symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)
Headache is the first symptom to be experienced and a “telltale” sign that a person is experiencing AMS. One or more of these symptoms can also be experienced:
Loss of appetite
TREATMENT: The good news is that the body can fix this by itself. You have to give it considerable time, however, to acclimatize to a higher altitude. Descend to the last height you slept at from when you have not experienced any symptoms. Then relax till you feel better.
Symptoms of High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE)
High Altitude Cerebral Edema or HACE is a situation in which fatal consequences are possible to the victim. Early signs are moderate to severe symptoms of AMS. However indications that Cerebral Edema or brain swelling has begun are impaired vision and confusion. Other signs include:
Cannot stand straight or balance one foot
Cannot walk straight (heel to toe walking)
TREATMENT: Anyone who has been diagnosed with HACE has to be sent to a lower altitude immediately. As soon as HACE is suspected, you should begin thinking about how to get medical attention and what to do if symptoms don't go away.
Symptoms of High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE)
HAPE is not preceded by AMS and HACE and can happen without experiencing either of the two. Shortness of breath and a dry cough are the first signs. The following symptoms may indicate that the lungs are still filling with fluid:
Unexpected fatigue. Tiredness and inability to exert oneself
Shortness of breath becomes worse
Victim develops a wet and "gurgly" cough
TREATMENT: A HAPE patient should be sent to a lower elevation as soon as possible in order to reduce the strain on their lungs. HAPE may lead to a person's death due to suffocation if left untreated. If the symptoms continue, get medical attention right at once.
FIRST AID MEDICATION AND TREATMENT TO ALTITUDE SICKNESS
Ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and aspirin are common over-the-counter medications that treat headaches associated with AMS and HACE. The headache may remain even after using these drugs, although this is not unusual. After you've descended and/or given your body time to adjust to the higher altitude, the headache normally goes away.
HOW TO PREVENT ALTITUDE SICKNESS
Managing the way you ascent on high elevations are critical to preventing altitude sickness. As a result, your body's physiology can adapt to operate in low-oxygen conditions depending on how well you manage your body when ascending. This can be done by not rushing our bodies and giving it time to adapt to our change of altitudes. If you think your heart rate is a bit too fast or you’re catching your breath, take a rest and let your body adapt.
Our body has a greater chance of acclimatizing if you let it take at least 2 to 3 days to reach a height of 8,000-10,000 feet or restrict daily ascents to 1,000 feet. We can also consider the importance of your sleeping altitude as well: You may ascend higher on a particular day as long as you return to a snoozing height that is within this limit.
Remember that our bodies adapt at a different pace to changing altitudes. It is important to take note that we need to give time for our body to be well aligned for these kinds of situations. Stop for a while, enjoy the views, snap some photos and talk for a moment with your hiking buddies. It is better to take it slowly and surely. Cheers!