It is an illness that ranges from a mild headache and weariness to a life-threatening build-up of fluid in the lungs or brain at high altitudes. Acute altitude sickness is the mildest and most common form.
- High Altitude: 1500 – 3500 m (5000 – 11500 ft)
- Very High Altitude: 3500 – 5500 m (11500 – 18000 ft)
- Extreme Altitude: above 5500 m (18000 ft)
Altitude Sickness Causes
Altitude sickness symptoms occur when the rate of ascent into higher altitudes is too quickly that the body doesn’t get time to acclimatize. Altitude sickness generally develops at elevations higher than 8,000 feet (about 2,400 meters) above sea level and when the rate of ascent exceeds 1,000 feet (300 meters) per day.
These actions can trigger altitude sickness:
- Ascending too quickly (rapidly)
- Overexertion within 24 hours of ascent
- Inadequate fluid intake
- Consumption of alcohol or other sedatives
One way to avoid altitude sickness is allowing the body to get used to the altitude slowly (Acclimatization)
- Acclimatization is the process by which the body adjusts to high altitudes.
- The goal of acclimatization is to increase ventilation (breathing) to compensate for lower oxygen content in the air.
- To compensate for this extra ventilation, blood needs to have a lower pH. In response, the kidneys excrete bicarbonate into the urine, which in turn lowers the body’s pH to accommodate for this extra respiratory effort.
Altitude Sickness Symptoms
Acute altitude sickness may be associated with any combination of the following symptoms:
- Shortness of breath during exertion
- Decreased appetite
- Swelling of extremities
- Social withdrawal
People with acute altitude sickness often attribute their symptoms to other causes such as an uncomfortable bed, bad food, or a hangover. However, it is important to recognize that these symptoms may indicate a high altitude illness which are High altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and High altitude cerebral edema (HACE).
High altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) fluid build up in the lungs, An advanced form of acute altitude sickness, causes the following progression of symptoms:
- Shortness of breath at rest
- Gurgling respirations
- Wet cough with frothy sputum
- Possible fever
- Respiratory failure
Onset of HAPE can be gradual or sudden. HAPE typically occurs after more than one day spent at high altitude.
High altitude cerebral edema (HACE) is fluid build up in the brain. It can begin with confusion.
- A person developing HACE begins having trouble keeping up with the group.
- Next, walking and coordination become impaired.
- As the brain continues to swell, lethargy and then coma will develop.
- If left untreated, HACE will ultimately result in death.
Both HAPE and HACE are potentially fatal but are thankfully extremely rare during a well planned Kilimanjaro climb.
Altitude Sickness Treatment
- Delay further ascent until symptoms improve.
- Rest and stay warm.
- Take acetaminophen (Tylenol) for headache. ( Ask your doctor for subscription )
- Do not use sleeping pills or other central nervous system depressants to treat insomnia because they can suppress breathing.
- If symptoms continue, do not travel any higher.
***In cases of HAPE or HACE ,immediate descent is a necessary life-saving measure (2,000 – 4,000 feet [610-1,220 meters]). Anyone suffering from HAPE or HACE must be evacuated to a medical facility for proper follow-up treatment. ***