Acute Mountain Sickness
What is acute mountain sickness?
Acute mountain sickness is common amongst those who travel to very high regions especially those above sea level i.e. heights above 2400m, equivalent to 10000 feet. Notable examples are Hikers and skiers.
This category of people will experience headaches, dizziness, and irregular short breaths in a mild state of the sickness. The condition can move a step further from mild to severe when it is accompanied by the swelling of the lungs. No wonder acute mountain sickness is otherwise referred to as high altitude pulmonary edema. The brain will not be exempted in severe cases. But the mild condition of the illness is more common than the severe cases.
Causes of acute mountain sickness
Heights greater than 10000 feet come with decreased availability of oxygen and atmospheric pressure. The body has been designed to adjust to situations beyond the normal. But in instances where your board a plane, hike, or ski, your body is left with very little time to adjust to its new environment at that point in time. When this happens suddenly, your body will react rather than respond. The outcome of the reaction is called acute mountain sickness. Your level of exertion upon ascending a new height may contribute to it as well.
Symptoms of acute mountain sickness
The symptoms will likely show up a couple of hours after arrival at higher altitudes. They come in different forms based on how mild or severe the illness is.
The mild case will present the following; dizziness, appetite loss, insomnia, nausea, vomiting, painful muscles, short breath, headache, increased heart rate, and puffiness of the face, hands, and feet
In severe cases where the symptoms are more serious, the heart, muscles, brain, and muscles will bear the brunt of the complications.
Your heart will have to do more work to make sure that blood that is rich in oxygen circulates in your body. When the heart is unable to do this well, fluid will begin to accumulate in the lungs and brain. When this happens, you will start experiencing these obvious signs: state of confusion, irregularity in your breathing rate, coughing, pale skin, poor balance while walking, and isolation from people. Your chest will also become congested with fluid.
Once you start experiencing any of these damning symptoms from your mountain climb, dial 911. Try as much as possible to seek medical assistance.
You should know that these symptoms can be handled before they show up and progress into a serious complication.
Risk factors for acute mountain sickness
Do you live close to the sea? Are not used to higher altitudes? Then your risk of developing acute mountain sickness is very high. There are many other factors that can increase your risks. Take a look at them.
- Sudden ascension to high altitudes.
- Strenuous activities in the process of ascending to a higher altitude.
- Traveling to extreme altitudes.
- Anemia – a state where your red blood cells are lower than normal.
- Diseases of the lungs and heart.
- Pills recommended for sleep, narcotic pains, or depression. These categories of drugs can lower your rate of breathing.
- Previous experience of acute mountain sickness.
If you are nursing any plan of traveling to elevated altitudes, and you have any of the factors listed above, it is crucial that you inform your doctor ahead of time.
Diagnosing acute mountain sickness
You will be expected to tell your doctor what your symptoms are. You will also be asked what your activities and travels have been like lately. Your doctor will check your lungs to find out if fluids are there. He will use a stethoscope for this purpose. To be accurate in the diagnosis, your doctor will instruct that you go for a chest X-ray.
Treatment for acute mountain sickness
It is dependent on the degree of severity. Complications can be prevented from developing if you return to a lower altitude. You might be admitted to a hospital when your brain or lungs have started swelling. You may be given an oxygen apparatus if you have started having breathing issues.
These include but are not limited to lung inhalers, acetazolamide, aspirin, dexamethasone, blood pressure regulators, etc. The lung inhaler is to check the pressure in the lungs. Dexamethasone will lower the extent to which the brain swells. Aspirin will check a headache.
Other treatments for mild cases include;
- Returning to lower altitudes.
- Cutting down on your level of activities.
- Getting some rest at least a day before you continue the trip to a higher altitude.
- Drinking plenty of water to keep your body hydrated.
Prevention of acute mountain sickness
It has always been said that prevention is better than cure. But I can assure you that prevention is the only cure to suffering from certain ill conditions. There are therefore certain measures you can take to lessen your development of acute mountain sickness.
Get knowledge about what to expect from a high altitude ascent from your doctor. Be sure you do not already have a grave medical condition. Find out from your doctor what the symptoms you might likely experience are. This information is to prepare you to recognize when you are beginning to manifest them and then attend to them very fast.
If the height you will be traveling to is up to 10,000 feet and more, request for acetazolamide from your doctor. This drug is very good in helping the body to adjust to high altitudes. It should be taken a day to the day you will be embarking on the trip. When you arrive at your destination, take it again. Doing this will help you to minimize your symptoms.
Most of the people after returning to lower altitudes seem to experience a quick recovery when it is the mild form of acute mountain sickness. Their symptoms should subside a few hours, and sometimes two days after their return to sea level. But if you have a severe form of the condition and you do not have sufficient access to treatment, you can develop complications. Such complications include brain and lungs swelling. These two complications will further cause you to go into a coma or even die at once. That is the more reason you should make appropriate plans before embarking on trips to a location having high-altitudes.
Ifiokobong Ene is a Medical Physiologist, and a freelance medical writer. Ifiok brings his years of medical research experience to help consistently create high-quality, and engaging articles and products that uphold the highest medical standards. He is dedicated to making health and wellness information available, actionable, and understandable so that readers can make the best decisions about their health.