Altitude sickness, or acute mountain sickness (AMS), is a condition caused by exposure to low pressure and oxygen levels commonly experienced when at high altitude. It presents itself initially as breathing difficulties. The condition can progress to high altitude pulmonary oedema, fluid in the lungs, as well as cerebral oedema, swelling of the brain, and is considered life threatening if left untreated and not handled appropriately. It can be experienced by climbers and hikers above 2,500 feet.
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When individuals ascend into higher altitude, the body may struggle to find sufficient oxygen. While even at altitude oxygen levels remain similar to that of low altitude ranges, the air density and the number of oxygen and nitrogen molecules can decrease as altitude increases. This means less oxygen is available for inhalation and in turn less is being used by the body for mental and physical exertion. Altitude sickness occurs when the amount of oxygen in the blood reaches this level, making breathing difficult as the body struggles to inhale enough to function normally.
Altogether there are three forms of altitude sickness. These are:
As the oxygen density decreases as altitude increases, if individuals are not careful, the same process can occur inside the body. This is usually as a result of climbing into higher altitude too quickly before acclimatisation can happen, where the body would be able to adapt to the reduction in oxygen inhaled. It takes a few days for this adaptation to happen, but if not observed symptoms of altitude sickness may start presenting themselves including severe reactions if altitude continues to rise.
Symptoms may present themselves differently depending on the individual but the most recognisable symptoms are:
This situation may indicate pulmonary oedema, where the lungs are slowly beginning to fill with fluid.
In the case of cerebral oedema, where the brain begins to swell, this will present as gradual loss of consciousness, retinal haemorrhage or bleeding of the retina inside the eye and increased nausea. Both of these situations should be treated as a life-threatening emergency and medical attention should be administered immediately, coupled with descending from high altitude.
The prescription medication Diamox, acetazolamide, may help prevent altitude sickness but is designed to be taken before even beginning to climb higher into altitude. It may be effective once symptoms begin to occur, but it's more effective when taken pre-emptively. The medication also needs to be used regularly during ascension.
A known natural remedy that is used for the treatment of altitude sickness is ginkgo biloba extract. However, there is an insufficient amount of evidence to prove that this herbal remedy can make a significant difference when used to treat altitude sickness. Therefore, prescription medication is still viewed by medical professionals to be the most effective form of altitude sickness available.
Listed below are some methods that can be followed to prevent the occurrence altitude sickness:
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