Whats is Altitude Sickness || a Quick guide to AMS

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Mountaineers and trekkers often face a very common problem at high altitudes especially if they are unaware of the threats it can pose and mostly when they are ignorant at making proper acclimatization decisions. Sometimes just peer pressure can make one challenge the physical limits of their body a little too much over the threshold limit and people even end up losing their lives to it. Altitude Sickness can be categorized into three types depending on the severity of which AMS or Acute Mountain Sickness (which I suffered from) is the mildest form of it.

Altitude Sickness

— An Exponential Slope of Death…

In this blog post, you will learn more about Altitude Sickness and how to avoid it. Also, I hope you never have to use the information on how to tackle it but better safe than sorry.

acute mountain sickness
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What is Altitude Sickness and what causes it?

At high altitudes, the air becomes thin and it only gets thinner with an increase in elevation. Thin in the sense that air pressure(barometric/atmospheric pressure) is very low and so is the oxygen content of the air. Hence naturally, any human being who is not acclimatized with such conditions will face some issues transporting oxygen properly to the organs. However, the amazing human body never seems to amaze you as it can naturally adapt to the altitude by producing more haemoglobin (oxygen-carrying cells of the blood) and takes its own time to do so. Hence different kinds of people need different lengths of acclimatization periods.

“Altitude sickness typically occurs only above 2,500 metres (8,000 ft), though some are affected at lower altitudes. Risk factors include a prior episode of altitude sickness, a high degree of activity, and a rapid increase in elevation. Diagnosis is based on symptoms and is supported in those who have more than a minor reduction in activities. It is recommended that at high-altitude any symptoms of headache, nausea, shortness of breath, or vomiting be assumed to be altitude sickness.


Who can suffer from Altitude Sickness and how bad can it be?

At unnatural elevations, any human being (even a fitness freak) who is not used to high altitudes and has not acclimatized to the altitude change(or not well versed with breathing techniques) can suffer from Mountain Sickness resulting from low levels of oxygen and the dwindling atmospheric pressure around. The only difference could be the severity.

Broadly this severity can be categorized into two severity levels synchronised with the three different kinds of Altitude Sickness:

  1. AMS – Acute Mountain Sickness (mild – If untreated/ignored can lead to HAPE and HACE)
  2. HAPE – High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (severe – Lungs fill up with fluids)
  3. HACE – High Altitude Cerebral Edema (severe – Brain fills up with fluids)

Mountain Sickness ranges from a “slight irritation” to a “life-threatening” situation. And sometimes this change in severity can aggravate over just a few hours. So it is absolutely necessary to know everything about these conditions in detail and understanding how the human body works under such extreme environments before you embark on a high altitude trekking/mountaineering expedition.

Read about the different types of High Altitude Sickness (in detail) here – ALTITUDE.ORG

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The human body at High Altitudes

A perfect self-explanatory infographic by IndiaHikes

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Mountain Sickness Symptoms

If any of the below mentioned symptoms surface while you are travelling at high altitudes, then do take them seriously and before dismissing them, kindly share your condition and problems with others. While AMS can still be treated invitro at some level, HAPE and HACE (which usually accompany each other) require immediate medical attention and the patient needs to be hospitalised to avoid sudden coma or even death.

A few Early Signs & Symptoms of AMS:

  1. Dizziness
  2. Headache
  3. Muscle aches
  4. Insomnia
  5. Nausea and vomiting
  6. Irritability
  7. Loss of appetite
  8. Swelling of the limbs and face
  9. Rapid(extreme fast) heartbeat
  10. Breathlessness with fatigue

A few Signs & Symptoms of HAPE and HACE:

  1. Intense Coughing
  2. Chest congestion/pain
  3. Reddish frothy sputum/cough
  4. Paleness/skin discoloration
  5. Inability to walk/imbalance
  6. Social withdrawal
  7. Confusion/hallucinations
  8. Breathlessness while resting

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How can Altitude Sickness be avoided?

Acclimatization is something which is always under your control and one can consciously adapt to the decreasing barometric pressure. The human body has its amazing ways of adapting and evolving with the changing environmental conditions and all it requires is sometimes. This ‘time’ varies from individual to individual one must respect it.

Some of the basic guidelines for acclimatization are:

  1. Start your journey below 10,000 feet. If you have to fly or drive somewhere that’s higher up, stop at one destination that’s lower for at least a full day before going any higher.
  2. If you walk, hike, or climb over 10,000 feet, only go up an additional 1,000 feet per day. For every 3,000 feet you climb, rest at least a day at that height.
  3. Climb high and sleep low”: If you have to climb over 1,000 feet in a day, make sure you come back down to a lower altitude to sleep.
  4. Drink 3-4 litres of water every day and make sure about 70% of your calories come from carbs.
  5. Don’t use tobacco, alcohol, or other medications, such as sleeping pills/hallucinogens.
  6. Know how to identify the first signs of altitude sickness. Immediately move to a lower elevation if you start to develop these symptoms.
  7. When it comes to high altitude, strictly avoid a negative mental space and the following:
Things to avoid to reduce the risk of AMS [ref]

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How can Altitude Sickness be treated?

Depending on the severity of the condition, certain specific practices/measures can help with one’s ailments. In the case of AMS, the most common and immediate treatment is to descend. At whatever elevation you are, if you see symptoms of AMS then stop ascending immediately. If the symptoms aggravate then descend to a lower altitude as soon as possible. At any cost do not ascend as it will only make things worse for you.

The only drug to have been working against AMS (safely) is acetazolamide (commercialized as Diamox). It has its own but minor side effects(like tingling fingers, funny taste in the mouth). One important thing to remember with Diamox tablets is that, once the medication is started, they need to be taken at regular prescribed intervals and one can only stop its consumption at the altitude at which they began the medication with. It is always advised to consult a doctor/general physician beforehand and it is highly recommended that you discuss all health issues with them.

As in the case of HAPE and HACE, one needs immediate medical attention and has to be under constant observation of a doctor/medical professional.

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How to Avoid Altitude Sickness

Some ways to naturally combat Mountain Sickness [ref]

My encounter with Mountain-Sickness!

If you have been following our blog, you already know how I battled AMS during my trek to Stok Kangri – India’s highest trekkable peak (20,000 feet above sea level).

Honesty, for a moment, I thought I won’t make it. My lungs were giving up. The dwindling air pressure was taking a heavy toll on my fever and cough filled cavities. And my headache was kind of killing me. Human beings are pretty frail when they get out of their comfort zones. I
felt it on Stok Kangri. The fever I caught in Kullu transformed into a sinus-triggered headache followed by puking and eventually a blood-coughing battle over a period of just two days. However, AMS just took seven hours to take me from normal “fever” to actual “Altitude Sickness”. It was a hell ride from Pang to Karu. Somehow I managed to get through it.

The sudden rise in elevation without proper acclimatization powered by my low immunity (because of the fever) had caused it but there was no time to regret. Then it hit me harder on the trek. I had been coughing periodically but on the trek, the cough had become bloody. Going on with it and hoping to make it till the end was my instinctual decision but it was a HUGE risk. The rest is history.

at Stok Kangri peak
That’s me – at 20,000 feet above sea level – after battling AMS!!

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However, it is only then I realized that this body is just an accumulation of this Earth and what I really am, is not just this body. It is a vessel, a machine I possess which is constantly trying to be at its best but I am more than it. It has limits, like all physical matter, and also keeps time; but not me. What I am is neither feeling the limits nor time. I am just experiencing them. The body is feeling all of it, not me. I set those limits in my head and the body reacts to them. And hence the body can be destroyed easily. Maybe what I am is just a form of energy, which can neither be created nor be destroyed.

? My Stok Kangri Expedition – trek to 20,000 ft above sea level !!

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36 thoughts on “Whats is Altitude Sickness || a Quick guide to AMS”

  1. This article is one of the best articles I have ever read on this topic. Kudos to the author, I distributed the article to my friends.
    Good Luck!

  2. Thanks for this informative post. Once we know about the condition and how to avoid it, we will be able to take care of ourselves better.

  3. Very important to know this information before going to the mountains. When I went to Ladakh, I didn’t know any of this and suffered from AMS without knowing it.

  4. Since I am from a HIGH altitude, I don’t experience such sickness. HOWEVER, I currently do live at sea level and haven’t been home in a bit so I wonder if I would experience any adverse effects if I went to visit.

    1. Well, I don’t think so.. I guess your body might have been well adapted to the environment of higher altitude areas 🙂

  5. I have experienced altitude sickness before and it was horrible. Funnily enough, it didn’t happen when I climbed up at 5000 meters, it did when I drove up to 2000.

    1. One can feel altitude sickness in just a few hundred meters of increase in altitude, especially if you have stayed at sea level for a major portion of your life!

  6. That was really detailed. I used to go hiking quite a bit, but not to those kinds of altitudes. I found the information about increasing your altitude strategically to be very helpful. I wouldn’t have thought about most of those things. Thanks again!

  7. I believe my daughter may have had altitude sickness when we were in the upper elevations of Arizona. She developed sinus issues which was ultimately treated as a severe sinus infection when we got home.

    1. Oh… it might be good to get a medical check-up done and take necessary precautions that the doc may suggest.
      take care!

  8. I’ve lived in Florida my whole life but used to travel up to the Smoky Mountains all the time When I was a kid. You wouldn’t think that would be that big of a deal but every time we were up there (about once a year sometimes twice if I was lucky) I’d end up with a severe migraine, blurred vision, and nausea. One year it was so bad my parents thought I had the flu so they took me to an er up there, the doctors said it was basically a mild form of altitude sickness I was getting. They said I was just really sensitive to the altitude differences from Florida (at 16 feet where I live) to the over 25,000 feet in Asheville. That was always pretty intense, So I can’t even imagine what you may have experiences. Thanks for the article it was an interesting read for sure.

    1. Hello Magen, first of all, thank you for stopping by and sharing your anecdote with us.
      Yes, altitude sickness is something that most of us don’t pay any attention to until and unless t becomes severe and starts causing real pain! It was really good that you visited a doctor and learnt more about it. I hope you are doing better now.
      Take care!

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