Sometimes a pleasurable activity such as mountaineering, skiing, or hiking can turn into a disaster if not taken care of appropriately, and this is just what may happen as a result of altitude sickness. Many individuals are quite passionate about these activities, but they may not be quite aware that they are putting their lives at risk.
We have heard of several instances when people die during expeditions to mountain ranges. Most of these deaths are due to altitude sickness.
Let us understand altitude sickness better.
This is a sickness that can affect people who are at a high altitude, typically over 8,000 feet or 2,400m. There are three forms of altitude sickness:
1. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is a mild form of altitude sickness. This is very common among people who travel to high altitudes and is caused by lower oxygen concentration and reduced air pressure that occur at high altitudes. The symptoms typically mimic a hangover, which are, headache, nausea, and fatigue, accompanied by a cough.
When anyone experiences these symptoms, at a high altitude, they must take the signal that they are very prone to developing the other two serious forms of altitude sickness, which can be fatal. In fact, it is said that 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 AMS on the day after they arrived.
2. High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) is a serious form of altitude sickness which develops after a person climbs over an altitude of 2500m. The fluid collects in the lungs, preventing air spaces from opening and filling in fresh oxygen, causing extreme shortness of breath, even while resting. This condition can be fatal within hours. Symptoms are very similar to the symptoms of AMS.
However, breathlessness worsens and continues even at rest.
3. High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) is the other life-threatening, serious altitude sickness where fluids collect in the brain. Symptoms may be headache, vomiting, lethargy, unsteadiness, confusion, drowsiness, and ultimately coma. People with HACE also start behaving irrational and strange.
People who ascend to above 3000m, are more likely to get HACE.
Factors Contributing To Altitude Sickness
Usually, the higher the altitude a person ascends, and the faster the rate of ascend, it is more likely that he will develop altitude sickness.
Who Is At Risk Of Developing Altitude Sickness?
Anyone who travels to above 2500m of altitude is at risk of developing AMS. Those who ignore the symptoms of AMS and proceed further are very likely to end up having HAPE or HACE. There is no way to predict exactly who is, particularly, at risk of having any of these three forms of altitude sickness. The only available remedy is prevention.
How To Treat Altitude Sickness?
The first and the most important thing to do is to descend to a lower altitude. As a temporary measure, oxygen should be provided and the air pressure should be raised around the victim with something called the ‘Gamow bag’, but that is by no means a substitute for quickly descending the mountain safely.
There is one drug called acetazolamide (Diamox), which is known to prevent mild altitude sickness symptoms. Frequent rests, while ascending, is very important.
Following the basic rules, being sensitive to symptoms, and taking them seriously when they first occur, will save your life.