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Different people under similar conditions will respond quite
differently to altitude. There are no specific factors such
as age, sex, or physical condition that correlate with susceptibility
to altitude sickness. Your response to altitude will depend on
your rate of ascent, the magnitude of the ascent, and your individual
susceptibility (genetics). The effects can be mild or severe,
and are caused by a lack of oxygen to the muscles and
brain. As altitude increases the concentration of oxygen stays
the same, but the number of oxygen molecules per breath is reduced
as the barometric pressure drops. At 5,500 m (18,000 ft), there
is half as much oxygen available as at sea level. Kilimanjaro is 19,340
feet. In some cases altitude sickness can turn extremely severe,
even fatal. For reasons not entirely understood high altitude
and lower air pressures can cause fluid to leak from the capillaries
and build-up in the brain and lungs. Continuing an ascent without
proper acclimation can lead to a life threatening illness.
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)
Mild symptoms of acute mountain sickness will occur in 75%
of people who travel over 10,000 feet, and can affect some
people at lower altitudes. These symptoms include:
These symptoms typically begin immediately after arrival
and tend to worsen at night. Mild AMS does not interfere with
normal activity and symptoms generally subside within 2-4
days as the body acclimatizes. As long as symptoms are mild and
only a nuisance, ascent can continue at a moderate rate.
- Disturbed sleep
- Loss of Appetite
Prevention of AMS
Altitude sickness is preventable! Pay close attention
to your body and the health of individuals in your group.
Immediately communicate any symptoms of illness to others
on your trip, since oxygen deprivation of the brain may cause individuals
to deny or not recognize their own symptoms.
High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE)
- STAY HYDRATED – urine output should be copious and
clear. Try to drink at least 4-6 liters per day.
- AVOID tobacco, alcohol, and other depressant drugs including
barbiturates, tranquilizers, and sleeping pills. They further
decrease the respiratory drive during sleep resulting in
a worsening of symptoms. In addition, avoid diuretics such
as coffee and tea.
- “DON’T GO UP UNTIL SYMPTOMS GO DOWN”
– people acclimatize at different rates, so make sure
that your entire party is properly acclimatized before going
higher. Rest at the same altitude is efficient for mild
symptoms, but if they do not go away within a day or two
it is essential that you descend immediately.
- DIAMOX (acetazolamide) is a drug shown to be effective
in minimizing the symptoms caused by poor oxygenation by
helping you breathe deeper and faster. This drug is not
used in treatment, it should be used as a preventative measure
only. The recommended dose is 125 mg twice a day, and it
is advisable to start taking it 24 hours before you go to
altitude and continue for at least five days at higher altitude.
Side effects include tingling of the lips and finger tips,
blurring of vision, and alteration of taste. If you are
allergic to sulfa drugs you should not take Diamox. Use
of this drug is controversial, so it is advisable to research
its effects prior to seeking a prescription. Here are a
couple of sites for your convenience:
- EAT high-carbohydrate foods while avoiding fatty foods.
- BEFORE your trip, maintain a good work/rest cycle, avoid
excessive work hours, and last minute packing.
- LISTEN to your body. Do not over-do things the first day or two. Avoid heavy exercise.
HAPE results from fluid buildup in the lungs, which prevents
effective oxygen exchange from the lungs to the bloodstream.
This is a very serious condition that can lead to death if
not treated immediately. Symptoms of HAPE include:
Although rare, HAPE frequently strikes young fit
climbers and trekkers. If you notice any of these signs in
yourself or others in your group you must descend immediately,
even at night. HAPE can be fatal within a few hours if left
untreated. However, if diagnosed early, recovery is rapid
with a descent of only 500-1,000 meters. Besides descent, treatment
also includes rest, administration of oxygen, and portable
- Irritating cough (can produce frothy, often blood-tinged sputum)
- Mental confusion, staggering drunken walk
- Quick shallow breathing, difficulty breathing
- Chest pain
- Gurgling noise in chest
- Debilitating headache and severe fatigue
- Disruption of vision, bladder, and bowel functions
- Loss of coordination of trunk muscles (test by walking straight line)
High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE)
HACE occurs when fluid leakage in the brain causes swelling
which affects the central nervous system. This is considered
the most serious altitude related illness. If left untreated
it will lead to coma and death. HACE is thought to occur in
1% of persons above 4,000 m and 3% of those with AMS, and usually
occurs after a week or two at high altitudes. Symptoms of
HACE can be similar to AMS and HACE and include:
Immediate descent is the best treatment for HACE. This is
of the utmost urgency, and cannot wait until morning. The
moment HACE is recognized is the moment to start organizing
an effort to get this person down the mountain, usually to
the point where they last slept with no symptoms. It is important
to recognize that persons with this illness are often confused,
and may not recognize that they are ill.
- Changes in Behavior
- Staggered gait (unable to walk heel-to-toe in a straight line)
- Severe weakness/fatigue
- Impaired mental processing, confusion
- Difficulty Speaking
- Paralysis of a Limb
- Decreasing levels of consciousness(loss of memory, hallucinations, psychotic behavior, and coma)
Note: The information provided here is designed for educational
use only and is not a substitute for specific training or
experience. Zara Tours assumes no liability for
any individual’s use of or reliance upon any material
contained or referenced herein.