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Altitude Sickness

There are two critical words you should know while traveling to the mountains. ‘ACCLIMATIZATION’ & 'ALTITUDE SICKNESS'

What is Acclimatization?

Acclimatization (also called acclimation or acclimatation) is the process of adjusting to the changes in the environment (such as the change in altitude, temperature, humidity, etc.). Acclimatization occurs in a short period, like hours to weeks depending upon the individual. Acclimatizing to the changed environment is very important because it won’t give a chance to the starting of a problem called altitude sickness.

How is acclimatization done?

Adaptation to the local environment is required and can be easily obtained by short walks, hikes and excursions with few ups and downs. Taking an extra day or two as the rest day is the best idea to acclimatize. In all our journeys to higher altitude regions, we have reserved extra days as acclimatization days when one can fully acclimatize before heading to higher altitudes. Acclimatization is needed in higher altitudes of above 3000-4000 meters.

What is Altitude sickness, and how is it related to Acclimatization?

Altitude sickness, also called Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), is an illness or adverse health effect caused by high altitude. It happens due to the low amounts of oxygen at high altitudes. Traveling at higher altitudes above 3000-4000m is strenuous and can cause altitude sickness, so proper acclimatization is necessary. This sickness can be a fatal problem if allowed to be prolonged.

Note: Travelers with pre-existing heart, lung or other problems should seek a doctor's advice before booking the trip. Drinking at least 3 liters of water daily while in the mountains is always advisable. 

Symptoms of High Altitude Sickness

Rather than one or two, a group of symptoms usually appear as a person gains altitude. These symptoms vary in intensity in the elevations at which they occur, depending on the individual experiencing them. The predominant characteristic associated with altitude sickness is headache.

Usually, a headache appears in the evening after a long day of ascending. The headache should be relieved by aspirins and should go away by the following morning. The main symptoms that accompany the onset of altitude sickness are headache and weakness, sleeplessness, often accompanied by irregular breathing (particularly at night), fluid retention [edema], particularly around the eyes or fingers depending on the degree of altitude sickness, dry cough, mild nausea, loss of appetite, ataxia or loss of coordination and severe breathlessness at rest.

The severe symptoms that are life-threatening, come with these two problems:

  1. Pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs)
  2. Cerebral edema (swelling of the brain)

Prevention of AMS

Prevention of altitude sickness is pretty simple. Acclimatize yourself well before going higher. Make a slow and gradual ascent and allow sufficient rest at intermediate altitudes. The perfect height to gain in a day is 500/600 meters. If you go beyond that, it’s hard to tell. Therefore, using this prevention method or listening to your guide’s instructions, you can prevent AMS.

Treatment of the altitude sickness

If the symptoms are mild, you should rest until they subside. If the symptoms become more severe or do not disappear after a night's sleep, you should descend until you feel well.

The primary treatment for severe altitude sickness is immediate descent; altitude sickness can rapidly progress once it becomes severe. The person afflicted should be taken down between 1000 to 3,000ft. [300 to 450m]. The drug acetazolamide [diamox] has assisted with acclimatization when traveling to altitude. Some reports indicate that the drug might be helpful in treating the early stages of altitude sickness in addition to its prevention use. It has been shown that people who had headaches, nausea and felt unwell improved considerably within 30 minutes of taking the tablets. The adult dosage is one 250 mg tablet twice a day. The most irritating side effect is a tingling sensation which can occur at any site and without warning. The dose can be reduced to 250 mg per day.

It is recommended that the drug be started on the morning of ascent above 10000ft/3000m and continued until descent or the person feels acclimatized. Please inform your guide/group leader if you decide to take acetazolamide. It should not be taken by people who are allergic to sulfur drugs. Severe altitude sickness affects few trekkers; most know when to stop and head back down. All of our treks are based on experience and are planned to gain height gradually, with days allowed for rest and acclimatization.

Note: Acclimatization is the only way to avoid Altitude Sickness, so please be cautious while traveling to the mountains.