If you plan on taking a trip to the mountains, then you’re probably taking extra pains to research the risks and rewards of such an adventure. Of course, your health is the most important thing to watch out for and one very great risk factor is altitude sickness (also known as acute mountain sickness, altitude anoxia, and many other names).
In general, its symptoms are mild and it only affects people who aren’t used to high altitudes, but if left untreated it could turn into something serious.
Surprisingly, whether or not you’re physically fit has no effect on whether or not you get altitude sickness. Simply driving on winding mountain roads can cause a headache or nauseousness. Why does this happen? Lack of oxygen.
According to Rick Curtis’s article “Outdoor Guide to High Altitude: Acclimatization and Illness,” oxygen levels decrease as altitude increases. Therefore, the higher you climb the more your body has to adjust. “Continuing to higher altitudes without proper acclimatization can lead to potentially serious, even life-threatening illnesses.”
Some common symptoms of Altitude Sickness include dizziness, shortness of breath, nausea, headache, and loss of appetite. In more serious cases, people may experience chest tightness, cough, and inability to walk in a straight line (PubMed Health). Sometimes, the symptoms won’t manifest right away and it’s very easy to mistake altitude sickness for the flu or a hangover. Therefore, it’s better to be safe than sorry and assume that you’re dealing with altitude sickness.
If you have any of these symptoms, the first thing to do is to climb down the mountain before you start feeling worse. Of course, if they’re mild then just take some time to rest for a few minutes to let your body get used to the new climate. Be sure to keep your physical activity to a minimum and drink plenty of water.
Treatment and Prevention
Along with taking it easy, you can also take regular pain killers for the headache. It’s best not to climb any higher until your symptoms are gone. A doctor could also prescribe you some pills specifically geared to treat altitude sickness. If your symptoms don’t seem to be getting better, go to a hospital right away.
Some ways to prevent altitude sickness include avoiding large meals and alcohol. If possible, do not take flights into high-altitude cities and be sure to eat lots of carbohydrates.
PubMed Heath. “Acute Mountain Sickness” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001190/
Web MD. “Altitude Sickness” http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/altitude-sickness-topic-overview
Rick Curtis “Outdoor Action Guide to High Altitude: Acclimatization and Illness” http://www.princeton.edu/~oa/safety/altitude.html