Altitude Sickness Treatment Essentials

While skiing, jungle trekking, and rock climbing are fabulous forms of active and healthy travel, altitude sickness could ruin your mile-high vacation.

The popularity of trekking is ever increasing. As a result, more people are seen flocking to the Himalayas and other rocky mountains in Asia. Normally a human body needs 24 to 48 hours to acclimatize at an altitude of 3,000 meters. Guided trekking companies find it impossible to put this in the itinerary keeping the demand for shorter duration treks for clients. Having returned from my recent trekking trip to China’s Daocheng Yading, i personally think it’s important for me to share my 17 year trekking experience with you.

This topic came to my attention when i first planned for my Himalayan trekking back in 2012. It was the highest mountain i had ever attempted to trek. I did a lot research studies and made a detailed preparation before the trip. What really helped me a lot was my conversations with other experienced trekkers who shared their stories with me.

Altitude sickness is an uncomfortable and potentially serious condition that affects some people when they travel to high-altitude destinations, from the Colorado Rockies to the Annapurnas in Nepal. But there are some steps you can take to help prevent altitude sickness while travelling and others to relieve symptoms of altitude sickness if you do develop it.

As you travel to high altitudes, the amount of oxygen in the air you are breathing declines. Once you reach altitudes of over 8,000 feet (2,400 metres), the oxygen levels in the air are significantly lower. It can be difficult for your body to adjust to this decreased oxygen, along with the cool and dry air, and closer proximity to the sun, all of which come with spending time at high altitudes. Fortunately, there are steps to take for both altitude sickness prevention and altitude sickness treatment.

Altitude Sickness Prevention

The best way to prevent altitude sickness is to allow your body to adjust to the decreased levels of oxygen in high-altitude locations:

Ascend slowly. Because it can take several days for your body to adjust to decreased oxygen, if you are travelling from sea level to a destination above 8,000 feet, try to plan your trip so that you gradually reach higher altitudes over the course of a few days. A good rule of thumb is to avoid ascending more than 1,000 feet a day. If you are travelling to very high altitudes, stop at 8,000 to 9,000 feet for a few days before moving on to allow your body to adjust.

Sleep low.  Your blood levels of oxygen are the lowest when you are sleeping at a high altitude. If possible, plan your vacation so that you visit high altitudes during the day and return to lower altitudes for sleeping. For instance, book your accommodation a couple of thousand feet lower than the mountain you will be climbing, biking, or skiing during the day.

Take medications.  If your doctor recommends it, consider taking acetazolamide (Diamox) to help your body adjust to rapidly increasing altitudes. Diamox may not be the best solution to some of you as there have been reports of side effects by trekkers who consume Diamox. I will be providing more solutions and other alternatives in my next article.

Avoid alcohol.  You should not consume alcoholic beverages for at least the first two days you are at a high altitude. Most trekkers tend to forget this advice during their trips.

Delay exercise.  Also plan to relax for the first couple of days before engaging in anything more than mild exercise. Many trekkers find yoga exercise useful but make sure you don’t stress yourself out.

Altitude Sickness Treatment

If you do develop altitude sickness, the following treatment options may help:

Over-The-Counter Pain Relievers
These can help ease altitude sickness-related headaches. I would usually take normal aspirin if required but Nurofen proves to be more effective most of the time. For more serious trekking, you may need to consider Diamox. You can read more about Diamox and other alternatives in my article ‘5 Alternatives to Diamox for High Altitude Mountain Sickness’.

Move to Lower Ground
For any type of altitude sickness, the best treatment is to immediately move to a lower altitude. Go down 1,500 to 2,000 feet at a time, until your symptoms disappear.

Wait It Out
If your symptoms are mild, taking it easy as your body adjusts to the higher altitude for a few days may help.

Seek Medication
Certain prescription medications, including acetazolamide, dexamethasone, and nifedipine, can help relieve altitude sickness symptoms.

It is important to listen to your body when travelling to high-altitude locations, since altitude sickness can be serious. If you suspect that you are experiencing altitude sickness, don’t go any higher until your symptoms improve and move to lower ground if your symptoms get worse. It is also important not to underestimate any mountains you are trying to conquer. Tone down your ego and have respect for the nature. You are not Superman.

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