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High Altitude Illness – Its Causes and Treatments
28 Nov 2018

High Altitude Illness – Its Causes and Treatments

Post by radars

Has it ever happened to you, that while walking or climbing to a much higher spot, a sudden wave of sickness gripped you? Well, in medical terms, this phenomenon is called “high altitude illness”. It can happen to anybody regardless of their age, gender or overall health and comprises of several symptoms like a headache, nausea, dizziness, aching muscles, loss of appetite, shortness of breath.

Moreover, high altitude sickness is of three types, the mildest form being Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), whereas two more severe cases result in high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). The severe two are actually life-threatening as they involve swelling of the brain and lungs filling up with fluid. Even the symptoms are quite different when the sickness is at its worst, and include confusion, extreme drowsiness, restlessness, inability to walk straight, coughing that produces bloody mucus, and even coma.

An existence of such an illness leads one to wonder what could be the possible causes and whether there are any treatments for it or not. Well, the good news is that yes, there certainly are medical remedies for high altitude illness! However, let’s start with investigating its causes first.

High altitude illness – what causes it?

Although doctors haven’t been able to find the exact reason why high altitude illness occurs, the common belief is that it is the way your body responds to the drop in pressure and oxygen levels as you ascend to heights around 8,000 feet and higher. Not everyone suffers from it the same way, in fact, a few are lucky enough to reach great altitudes without trouble. Besides, it is very likely that no two individuals develop the exact same symptoms of high altitude illness at the same height or time.

Whenever you ascend to a place that is located at a much higher altitude than your body is accustomed to, you are at a risk of such sickness. The symptoms tend to appear when you proceed too quickly, not giving your body enough time to adapt to the change in air pressure around you. It is actually the lack of oxygen that triggers this illness, and all those who aren’t used to such heights tend to be the most vulnerable. Furthermore, you are more prone to get hit by the symptoms if you have suffered them previously as well. Your genes are also known to play a prominent role in determining your body’s capability to handle higher altitudes.

Treatments to keep in mind

Since persisting symptoms of high altitude illness can be very dangerous, it is essential to take note of the list of treatments available for it. Here, have a look at each one:

  1. Descend – The first and foremost thing to do when you feel unwell at a high altitude, is to lower the level of elevation by descending. This will help in stabilizing your condition and looking for medical aid if required. It is recommended to come down at least 2000 feet and further below until you start feeling better.
  2. Oxygen – In case the patient appears to be having difficulty in breathing normally 12 to 24 hours after reaching a certain altitude, stop them right there and arrange for pure oxygen to be provided. Once breathing returns to normal, look for any other symptoms that might need attention.
  3. Gamow bag – This is basically a portable hyperbaric chamber, inflated using a pump, which can be used to reduce altitudes by 5000 feet. In case it is not possible to descend rapidly, patients with severe high altitude illness symptoms can be evacuated down with the aid of this bag so as to be treated at a lower altitude.
  4. Medications – There are a few medications that can be used when you start feeling sick at a high altitude. These include painkillers like paracetamol to get rid of headaches and Acetazolamide which improves breathing and combats nausea as well as dizziness. For severe cases, Dexamethasone and Nifedipine can be consumed as they are suitable for decreasing brain swelling and treating fluid accumulation in the lungs respectively, as in the case of HACE and HAPE.
  5. Others – Apart from the treatments mentioned above, it suggested that patients suffering from high altitude illness symptoms take complete rest instead of exerting themselves by climbing further. Also, make sure to consume plenty of fluids to stay well hydrated and cut the alcohol intake and smoking too.

Final Thoughts

Whether you are a hiker, skier, a random adventurer or someone who is planning to holiday in the exotic resorts high in the Alps, be aware of the many symptoms of high altitude illness. Even though it is not necessary that you will be affected, it is always good to be prepared for the worse. The best preventive method is to ascend slowly, and in case any symptoms emerge, don’t hesitate to get to a lower altitude and seek medical help immediately. Sometimes, symptoms might go away on their own when you descend, but keep in mind that untreated symptoms can become fatal. High altitude illness should never be taken this lightly no matter how enthusiastic you are about climbing high!

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