Altitude Sickness & Its Possible Remedies

Altitude Sickness is a common occurrence during the travel to the higher altitude. A human body can take only a minor exposure to low partial pressure of Oxygen at higher altitudes. It is a pathological condition popularly known as AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness).

If not cured or prevented, it can advance to HAPE or HACE, which are highly fatal and hardly curable. HAPE or High Atitude Pulmonary Edema is a rare case caused by fluid accumulation in lungs, whereas, HACE or High Altitude Chronic Edema is a caused when brain is swelled with fluid.


Altitude & Oxygen

The availability of Oxygen is inversely proportional to the altitude. The higher you go, the lesser the oxygen is available.

The human body can perform best at sea level, where the atmospheric pressure is 101’325 Pa or 1013.25 millibars (or 1 atm, by definition). The concentration of oxygen (O2) in sea-level air is 20.9%, so the partial pressure of O2 (pO2) is 21.136 kPa. In healthy individuals, this saturates hemoglobin, the oxygen-binding red pigment in red blood cells (RBC).

As you ascend up, the level of Oxygen saturation in air starts decreasing, hence producing lesser Hemoglobin in RBC. To tackle such conditions, travelers usually spend more time acclimatizing to the altitude before advancing further.

Chart depicting the Oxygen level at various altitudes
Chart depicting the Oxygen level at various altitudes

Facts

  • It’s a common phenomenon during trekking or climbing at higher altitudes.
  • Most climbers are known to have died from AMS or HAPE/HACE on Mount Everest.
  • Most trekkers attract altitude sickness above the height of 3,000 meters, however, it is very rare and most of the time can be avoided with precautions.
  • Once you attract AMS, you should immediately start descending to prevent the condition from worsening. If you stay put or try ascending further, you can probably die from it.
  • The climbers at the higher altitudes are known to have hallucinated to their death due to lack of Oxygen. (Gunther Messner, brother of Reinhold Messner, at Nanga Parbat was hallucinating before dying).
  • The region above 8,000 meters is known as “Death Zone,” because, your body cannot acclimatize at the given altitude at any condition. Climbers during the summit of Eight-Thousander, such as; Everest & K2, spend as less time as possible above 8,000 meters. They basically camp below 8,000 before summiting and get back quickly below the given altitude after summit to avoid any further harm to themselves.

Remedies for Altitude Sickness

  1. Ascend slowly at the higher altitude. Take a rest or acclimatize in between to adjust yourself. The body needs a full day rest to acclimatize for every 1,500 meters of ascend.
  2. Do not ascend over 3,000 meters in a single day. you body is attuned to such high ascend in a single day.
  3. Take enough fluid, water, and protein-carb rich food to help you fight fatigue and dehydration. Carbohydrate is known to fight AMS and help store energy, therefore, carb rich food en trail is recommended.
  4. Take prophylaxis medicine after the consultation with your doctor. Acetazolamide (Diamox) is a diuretic, which increases urine production, and is known to cause an increase in respiratory ventilation that allows more oxygen exchange in our body. Take it before the trip and at the interval of 6-12 hours until you are fully acclimated.
  5. Test your RBC!  If you are found to have anemia or low red blood cells, your doctor may advise you to correct this before going on a trip. Lesser RBC in a body produces lesser hemoglobin which is essential for fighting fatigue.

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