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Altitude Sickness

When a person is at a high-altitude and he starts feeling uncomfortable because of health troubles caused by oxygen deficiency in the blood and tissues, the condition is known as altitude sickness. It is also known as acute mountain sickness and it generally affects mountaineers, hikers, skiers, or tourists travelling to high altitude places.

As we climb to higher altitudes, the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere reduces. Altitude sickness occurs when the rate of ascent of the mountaineer into higher altitudes surpasses the body’s ability to adjust to these heights where the oxygen concentration is low. The condition is a result of low levels of oxygen in the blood and tissues and causes discomfort and health troubles. The severity of the illness depends on how high and fast a person ascends. Thus, it is risky to rapidly ascend to great heights. However, altitude sickness normally does not occur below 8000 ft.

The symptoms of altitude sickness may start showing only after six hours after arriving at high altitude:

  1. Headache
  2. Tiredness & weakness
  3. Unsteadiness
  4. Nausea

The above mentioned symptoms are mild and may soon disappear within a day or two, if you do not go to a higher altitude. However, in severe cases, one may also show other symptoms like shortness of breath and vomiting. In some cases, there are chances of fluid being built up in the lungs and this condition is known as high-altitude pulmonary oedema. It results into cough with frothy sputum. The fluid can also accumulate in the brain resulting into high-altitude cerebral oedema, which causes the brain to swell. When the brain swells, the person may experience clumsiness and difficulty in walking. If the condition is left untreated it may have adverse consequences on health. These consequences may include confusion, seizures or fits, the person may slip into coma and in some cases if complication occur the person may even die.

Diagnosis & treatment
Rest, painkillers, consumption of plenty of fluids and a light diet are instant remedies for altitude sickness. They together enable the person to adapt to the environment. Avoid climbing further if your symptoms have not yet subsided. If the symptoms are severe, make arrangements for rapid descent, as it may save your life. Even descending only 300m or 1000ft may prove to be beneficial.

In severe cases, immediate oxygen therapy becomes necessary if the lungs and brain are affected; a delay in treatment may lead to permanent damage to the brain and at times may even prove fatal. To recover from the condition, the doctor may advise bed-rest and prescribe drugs. Most people treated for altitude sickness fully recover within one to three days. Even if the lungs and brain are affected, the person is able to recover. However, it all depends on the response to the treatment, and a person may need treatment for several days or weeks.

One has to have a good physical resistance power and high level of fitness as prerequisites for climbing mountains with great heights. Increase your fluid intake while ascending. You may even take a drug beforehand to reduce susceptibility to altitude sickness. Don’t forget to carry an oxygen supply when you are climbing above 3700m or 12000 ft.

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