Some of the world’s most spectacular places are the hardest to reach. But that’s part of the appeal, right? It makes reaching them than all that more rewarding.
In January 2010 I trekked the Annapurna region in the Himalayas in Nepal. Ascending to almost 4,000 metres meant that I had to be very aware of how my body was coping with the lack of oxygen in the air and be on the look out for the warning signs of altitude sickness. Thankfully, I only experienced the mild symptoms of headaches, shortness of breath and light-headedness, with others in my company faring a little worse with insomnia, severe drowsiness and lethargy.
Anyone ascending beyond 2,500 metres is susceptible to altitude sickness, but don’t let it bring you down!
How to prevent and manage altitude sickness:
The main cause of altitude sickness is ascending to altitude too quickly. Allowing time for your body to acclimatise through a more gradual ascent can often prevent altitude sickness entirely. It is recommended that you don’t fly or drive to an area that has a high altitude, as your body will find it difficult to adjust so quickly to the lower level of oxygen in the air. If you must travel this way, let your body adjust for at least 24 hours, being careful not to exert yourself.
Furthermore, it is recommended that once you reach 3,000 metres, only ascend an additional 300 metres per day and for every 900 metres gained, take a rest day to aid the acclimatisation process. Remember, different people acclimatise at different rates and often women adjust more quickly than men.
2. Keep your fluids up
It is common to confuse the symptoms of dehydration with altitude sickness. Drinking plenty of water may very well result in some of your symptoms disappearing, thereby confirming dehydration to be the cause.
In any case, remaining well-hydrated can also prevent injuries and aid in the acclimatisation process as your body will be more efficient in transporting oxygen to where it’s needed. Electrolyte drink mixes are a great option for replenishing electrolytes lost through sweat and exertion.
3. Listen to your body
Being aware of the symptoms of the onset of altitude sickness is important in being able to treat it effectively. The most common symptoms are:
- loss of appetite
- fatigue or weakness
- dizziness or light-headedness
- shortness of breath with exertion
- nausea or vomiting
- pins and needles
- short, rapid pulse
If you begin to experience any of the above symptoms, take it as a signal from your body that you need to slow down and take more time to acclimatise before ascending further.
4. Take medication or natural supplements
Some medications have been shown to prevent or assist in the treatment of altitude sickness. Most people are able to combat the effects of altitude sickness without intervening with medication, however, you may wish to see your doctor prior to departure for a prescription. Diamox, in particular, can be helpful in preventing the onset of altitude sickness and many climbers around the world are known to carry it with them on expeditions. Be warned, however, that many of the medications used in the prevention of altitude sickness are associated with minor side effects such as itching, excessive urination and tingling.
For a more natural approach, Gingko biloba, an inexpensive herbal supplement, increases circulation, mental clarity and has been proven to speed up the acclimatisation process.
5. Seek emergency assistance
Altitude sickness can become life threatening if not managed and treated properly. If one or more of the following symptoms is observed, medical treatment should be sought immediately:
- increased vomiting
- shortness of breath even when resting
- unsteady walking
- unresponsive headache
- persistent dry cough
- gradual loss of consciousness
These symptoms can be a sign of fatal conditions such as pulmonary or cerebral edema (fluid in the lungs or brain) and occur in 2% of people ascending beyond 2,700 metres. Immediate descent should occur and emergency assistance sought.
Taking these precautionary measures as well as learning to recognise the onset of altitude sickness will assist you in being able to manage it effectively. There is nothing worse than not being able to fully appreciate the magnificence of your surroundings if you’re suffering.
Have you ever suffered from altitude sickness on your travels?