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Title image:  Getting ready for expeditions, resources and tips

Expedition Health and Saftey Series

Five Ways to Prevent Altitude Sickness

By Sara Tiffany

Altitude sickness, also known as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), is caused by the lower concentration of oxygen present in the air at high altitudes. Some people experience symptoms of altitude sickness at elevations as low as 8,000ft/2450m, so how do people travel to the summit of Mount Everest which is more than 20,000ft/6100m higher? The answer is acclimatization which means allowing your body to adapt to operating with less oxygen. This takes time, for Everest climbers that means nearly 2 months, and even then not everyone acclimatizes effectively. The best way to approach high altitude climbs is to prepare yourself by knowing what to expect and to travel with guides who have extensive experience at altitude. At Berg Adventures, we carefully plan itineraries based on more than 25 years of high altitude experience to keep you feeling strong and healthy as you acclimatize. We will take care of you and help you make good decisions as you climb at altitude. Here are 5 things you can do to help protect yourself from AMS.

1. Know your Signs and Symptoms.

Typical symptoms of mild altitude sickness will feel something like a hangover – namely a headache, nausea and a general lack of energy. Additional symptoms may include the lack of appetite, vomiting, extreme fatigue, dizziness and difficulty sleeping.

At some point during your trek or climb you will likely feel some degree of one or more symptoms, though these symptoms should subside quickly if you are acclimatizing properly. For example, one night you may find that you have a headache and lack of appetite due to mild nausea followed by a poor night of sleep, but in the morning you might find yourself feeling totally healthy. This isn’t unusual, in fact, this is what should happen.

If symptoms persist or worsen, seek help or advice from your guide or other experienced people. When symptoms persist and are ignored, AMS can progress to High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) or High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). These conditions can be life threatening if not treated. Watch for signs and symptoms of these conditions in yourself and your friends – if someone has gotten to this point, they probably aren’t making good decisions and will most certainly need assistance getting to a lower altitude. Signs of HACE look like drunkenness – the person becomes stumbly, mumbly, and fumbly. They will likely have a debilitating headache, be experiencing increased vomiting and may eventually lose consciousness. Signs of HAPE include a persistent dry cough, fever and the inability to catch one’s breath.

2. Acclimatization is Key.

Your body can function effectively with much less oxygen than it normally does. For example, with each breath you take on the summit of Kilimanjaro you are getting half the oxygen that you would be getting at sea level and yet you can function normally, especially if you are well acclimatized.

Climb high, sleep low; this is the climber’s refrain. Expose yourself to higher altitudes during the day and then return lower for the night. This will give your body lots of time to recover from the high altitude and will help you get a good night’s sleep to keep you strong. Another way to acclimatize is to take rest days every couple of days or after relatively large changes in elevation. A rest day will not only provide your body with the extra time to get used to the lower level of oxygen, it will also give your sore muscles some time to recover.

3. Stay Hydrated, Stay Fueled.

Keeping your body well-hydrated will help you acclimatize most efficiently. Water does the body good! Also, common symptoms of AMS are akin to those of dehydration - so you may actually just be dehydrated. It is quite easy to become dehydrated at high altitudes because you lose more water vapor from your lungs with each breath. If you are taking Diamox, a drug commonly prescribed to aid acclimatization, it will be even harder to stay well-hydrated because the drug is a diuretic. Drink often and when possible eat soup as a part of your meals. Soups rehydrate very effectively because they contain salt in addition to liquid. While you may hear the advice to avoid caffeine because it is a diuretic, we disagree. We recommend you follow your regular daily routine when it comes to caffeine. The last thing you need is a caffeine deprivation headache when you’re on the trip of a lifetime!

Fueling with calories is equally important. You’re burning lots of calories as you hike and climb, plus at altitude you burn more calories than you normally do. These factors plus the added energy it takes to keep your body acclimatizing mean you need to eat, a lot. Carbohydrates are going to be the most important thing you will need to keep your body moving – leave the low carb diets at home! You may find that you will become pickier or lose your appetite all together as you climb higher. This is normal, but try to find something that sounds good to you and eat that. Reminding yourself to fuel-up regularly, even when you’re not hungry.

4. Take it Slow and Steady.

Don’t compete with your fellow trekkers and climbers. Everyone acclimatizes differently. The way you acclimatize has nothing to do with your level of fitness or your health. In fact, there is no way to know in advance how your body will react to altitude; there is no known reason for why some people experience AMS while others do not. The best thing you can do is to travel slow and steady at a pace that feels right for you. When you rush, you shorten the amount of time that your body has to adjust to the increasing altitude. Anyone who has climbed Kilimanjaro will know the phrase, “Pole, pole”, (pronounced pole-ay, pole-ay) which means “Slowly, slowly”. Use it as your mantra to remind yourself that you are not in a race.

Just to reiterate, if you do not acclimatize as quickly as someone else it does not mean you are weaker than them or less healthy than them. Ease of acclimatization is not a factor of health or fitness. Listen to your body.

5. Know When to Turn Around.

If you’ve been unable to stave off the symptoms of AMS, there comes a time when nothing will help except decent. Turn around early so that your illness does not become a medical emergency and your AMS does not turn in to HAPE or HACE. Listen to your guides. Listen to your body (do we sound like a broken record yet?). When symptoms persist despite rest or become severe, it is time to travel to a lower altitude. If you do not have a guide, do not descend alone as you may get worse and become unable to continue.

For more on altitude tips and facts visit our Expedition Preparation Page.

To sign up for your own high altitude adventure, contact our office today!