What To Do With Mountain Sickness

by: Anna Szlavi

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It’s simple. It’s common. It’s awful.

Do you know the feeling when you’ve been preparing for a summit for months and you think you’ve done everything, from reading days about the climb, through  checking the temperature to picking the right equipment? And finally when you’re there, you’re knocked out by the simplest thing. High altitude. It just happened to me when I was climbing Grossvenediger. I wish I had known more about mountain sickness.

Here’s what you definitely should know before you head out.

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What is mountain sickness?

Altitude sickness or mountain sickness develops if your body is unable to adjust to getting less oxygen due to the change in air pressure on high altitudes. Usually, symptoms appear after you reach 2,400m (8,000ft). Several hours can pass before the sickness strikes you, most likely during your sleep when your body functions slow down. The lack of oxygen in the blood can lead to a variety of unpleasant (occasionally even dangerous) consequences.

The mildest and most common form is acute mountain sickness (AMS), which involves headache, nausea, lack of appetite, stomach-ache, dizziness, insomnia, high heart-rate, and fatigue, among many others. It depends on the individual how extensively and strongly one is affected. According to studies, it is not related to gender, physical condition, or age — are you the lucky one?

In more serious cases, the condition can become life-threatening, attacking the lungs and the brain. High altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high altitude cerebral edema (HASE) lead to breathlessness and loss of consciousness, and, if it stays untreated, to death.

 

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What causes mountain sickness?

Even if it cannot be predicted if and how much you are to experience mountain sickness, there are factors that make it more likely you are on the wrong end.

  • If you ascend too quickly (lack of acclimatization)
  • If you overexert yourself within the 24 hours of the ascent
  • If you don’t drink enough water (dehydration)
  • If you drink alcohol (dehydration)
  • If you are hypothermic (lower body temperature)
  • If you are anemic (less blood cells)

 

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What can you do against mountain sickness?

If you already have it, try to drink as much water as possible and rest. The body needs to acclimatise itself to produce enough blood cells for an adequate amount of oxygen in the blood. Rest one day at that altitude before going further, or return to a lower altitude and sleep there. Ideally, to sleep you should ascend not more than 300m of elevation each day.

If your symptoms are serious (like shortness of breath or mental confusion), you have to descend immediately.

It is a lot better to try to prevent altitude sickness. These are the things you can do:

  • Ascend slowly.
  • Sleep on lower altitudes.
  • Keep hydrated and warm.
  • Plan for extra days of rest.
  • Take natural remedies (ginseng, milk thistle, salvia, coca leaves, reishi mushroom) with you.
  • Take medication (aspirin, acetazolamide, prochlorperazine, vitamin C & E, oxygen) with you.
  • Undergo an iron treatment, if you are anemic, well before the trip. It can involve iron pills, as much as eating food rich in iron (liver, spinach, lentils, beans, eggs, red wine, etc.).

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Take these things seriously, OK? Eventually, you will want to make it to the summit. And you will want to make it with a happy face. Trust me, it sucks to be suffering of AMS and having to drag yourself all the way up, instead of appreciating all the beauties of this Wonderland.