Every year, millions of people go to the mountains for backpacking, skiing, mountain climbing and other activities. If you’re planning a trip to altitudes higher than 8,000 feet, talk with your doctor about high-altitude illness. This is also called mountain sickness or altitude sickness.
How do I know if I’m getting high-altitude illness?
Some of the first signs of high-altitude illness are headache, lightheadedness, weakness, trouble sleeping and an upset stomach. If you have these symptoms, stop going up or go back down to a lower altitude until your symptoms go away. More severe symptoms include difficulty breathing even while you’re resting, coughing, confusion and the inability to walk in a straight line. If you get these symptoms, go to a lower altitude right away and get help from a doctor.
What causes high-altitude illness?
You may have heard that the air is “thinner” at higher altitudes. This means that your body cannot get as much oxygen from the air when you are at a higher altitude. This happen most often at altitudes higher than 8,000 feet. This can cause problems for people who normally live at lower altitudes because their bodies aren’t used to working on so little oxygen. If you stay at a high altitude for a long time, your body gets used to the low oxygen level, and you don’t get sick from it.
The following are the 3 main types of high-altitude illness:
- Acute mountain sickness
- High-altitude pulmonary edema (also called HAPE), which affects the lungs
- High-altitude cerebral edema (also called HACE), which affects the brain
These illnesses can be serious, but they can also be prevented.
What should I do if I get high-altitude illness?
The best treatment for any of the 3 high-altitude illnesses is to go down to a lower altitude right away. But if you only have mild symptoms, you may be able to stay at that altitude and let your body adjust. If you do this, don’t exercise at all–just rest until you feel better.
If you have severe symptoms, go down 1,500 to 2,000 feet right away to see if your symptoms get better. Keep going down until your symptoms go away completely.
Medicines that may be used to prevent or treat the symptoms of severe high-altitude illness include acetazolamide and nifedipine.
Don’t ignore signs of high-altitude illness. People can die of this if they don’t recognize the signs or if they don’t believe their illness is caused by the high altitude. When you have signs of high-altitude illness, don’t go higher until you feel better and your symptoms have gone away completely.