High altitude places a range of different strains on our body. First of all it means we are dealing with low air pressure which has a vacuum like effect on our body and our fluids, then there is the vertigo caused by heights, then there’s the cold, and then there’s the low oxygen resulting in breathing difficulties and hyperventilation.
All of these problems lead to a condition known as ‘AMS’ or ‘acute mountain sickness’ which is a spectrum disorder that ranges from mild to life threatening. Here we will look at some of the symptoms of AMS as well as some of the symptoms to help prepare you for mountain trekking and other high altitude adventures.
AMS affects different people differently, with age and gender seeming to have little impact on the severity. Common symptoms include headaches, nausea, dizziness and feinting. The easiest way to describe the condition is to liken it to a hangover, and it is likely to kick in at around 7,500 feet.
HAPE is an acronym for ‘High Altitude Pulmonary Edema’. HAPE is a result of fluid building up in the lungs and this causes fatigue and a shortness of breath along with a dry, chesty cough. The lack of oxygen (hypoxia) can then result in a bluing of the lips and nails. It is highly important that someone suffering with HAPE receive medical attention, or the fluid buildup can continue ultimately suffocating the sufferer.
HACE is ‘High Altitude Cerebral Edema’, and describes the brain ‘swelling’ due to a disruption of the blood brain barrier. This results in an awkward gait and lack of coordination, along with impaired thinking, sleepiness, stupor and ultimately stupor. HACE often follows HAPE and is likely to occur 12 hours to three days after.
HAFE stands for ‘High Altitude Flatus Explosion’ and is characterized by the sudden and powerful expulsion of colonic gas. The reason of course is the expansion of air in which is caused by the decreased atmospheric pressure. This can in some cases be painful, though it is not in itself dangerous.
A range of conditions may be worsened by high altitude. For instance if you already have breathing conditions from asthma to emphysema then you need to pay particular attention to the symptoms of altitude sickness. Meanwhile heart arrhythmias, artery disease, pregnancy, sickle cell trait and more can all be adversely affected.
The best form of treatment is of course to remove yourself from high altitude. However there are also supplementary forms of treatment, and coping strategies that can be used in the interim. Of course carrying oxygen is a wise move, while at the same time medications such as Diamox can be useful (available by prescription only).
When in high altitude it is important to avoid the consumption of alcohol and caffeine to avoid triggering the conditions. Fluid intake should be increased (to around 3 or 4 liters a day) and you should make sure to minimize exertion. If mild headaches occur then you can use paracetamol and ibuprofen (the latter also helps to reduce swelling), but you should not ignore more pronounced symptoms.