Altitude Sickness, also known as Acute Mountain sickness(AMS) is a NON-deadly condition that occurs when traveling from lower Altitudes to a higher altitude generally above 8000 feet. It is essential to learn what altitude sickness is, what causes it, how to avoid it and how to prevent it. Here you will learn everything you need to know about AMS, and how HACE and HAPE are different. We also answered some of the most common questions that we regularly receive.
Facts about Altitude Sickness
- Altitude sickness is generally caused the decrease in oxygen molecules per breath when you go from lower altitude to above 8000 feet.
- Altitude affects everyone differently and greatly depends on a person’s age, weight, blood pressure and fitness level.
- Most common cause of Altitude Sickness is a minor headache.
- Altitude Sickness is commonly mistaken or may worsen with dehydration.
- Altitude Sickness will often cause a decrease in appetite, and occasionally weakness.
- Altitude Sickness is more common in people who reside below 3,000 feet.
What are altitude sickness symptoms?
A proper diagnosis of altitude sickness will include one of the following symptoms alongside a headache:
Other symptoms include Lack of appetite, nausea, or vomiting, Exhaustion, feeling sleepy, dizziness or weakness, pins and needles, shortness of breath, swelling of the hands, feet, and face, Insomnia or Restlessness, Causes of Altitude Sickness.
If any of these symptoms occur it is best to decrease your altitude and see if they subside. Though altitude sickness itself isn’t deadly, high altitudes can cause Pulmonary Edema or Cerebral Edema. Altitude Sickness occurs when you rapidly increase in elevation. Generally, it happens in an individual that resides below 3000 feet.
Altitude Sickness does not occur when flying. Though you can have complications when flying, however, it is not altitude sickness.
Altitude Sickness is caused by the decrease in oxygen molecules within the body. The air below 19000 feet has the same amount of oxygen. Your body doesn’t absorb it the same when traveling at elevated altitudes.
Altitude Sickness Prevention
Descend in Elevation
The most overlooked and obvious answer is to descend to a lower altitude. By going below 8000 feet, your body starts absorbing more oxygen molecules, and you will quickly begin to feel better.
If you experience severe complications such as HAPE(High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) or HACE(High Altitude Cerebral Edema) you should descend between 2000- 3000 feet, this is enough to allow your body recover.
In specific instances, you may want to seek medical attention for pure Oxygen. Pure oxygen is readily available by a medical professional in many skis towns in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah.
Acetaminophens and Anti-inflammatories such as Tylenol and Ibuprofen can be used to help with headaches. These painkillers just mask the symptoms. Though they generally seem to help, better options seem to be available.
This is NOT the same thing as pure Oxygen. This isn’t the best option to help prevent Altitude Sickness and it certainly won’t cure it. Canned Oxygen will offer relatively quick relief.
Though you can not travel with canned Oxygen, it is available almost anywhere in the US. Canned Oxygen Manufacturers claim to offer 95% oxygen. The truth is when used only 35-40% more oxygen is delivered to you. The natural air you breathe only contains 21% oxygen. WE DON’T NEED 35-40%… Your body can actually only absorb so much and offering this much is just a waste. Altitudes below 19,000 feet still have 21% oxygen.
Using canned recreational Oxygen poses major health risks. Using supplemental Oxygen mixed specifically for extremely high altitudes on Mt. Everest and other like mountains is understandable. These mixed oxygen canisters are not the same as over the counter canned oxygen.
Natural alternatives will help utilize the oxygen and will assist in most Altitude complications.
Diamox and Acetazolamide for battling Altitude Sickness
Why acetazolamide for Altitude Sickness AND Why Diamox for Altitude Sickness?
Well, these are Good questions… Acetazolamide is sold as an alternative generic drug to Diamox. These options are pharmaceutical grade narcotics and were originally designed for Epilepsy and other causes of seizures. Both drugs have been used to treat Glaucoma, Altitude Sickness, periodic paralysis, idiopathic intracranial hypertension, and heart failure.
Acetazolamide and Diamox first came in to use in 1952. It is very apparent that both of these drugs are VERY important to the medical industry, especially when used to treat deadly diseases and complications. The world health organization even has them on a list for essential medicines needed in the Health System.
So it is apparent that these drugs are important to us, are they really necessary for Altitude Sickness?
The possible side effect list is significantly more extensive than the side effect list for AMS.
Possible Side effects of Acetazolamide and Diamox are:
Death, Irregular heartbeat, Trouble breathing, Skin rash, hives, itching, Painful urination, Bloody stools, Bloody urine, Yellowing of skin or eyes, Unusual bleeding or bruising, Pain in joints or lower back, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, Dizziness, drowsiness, lightheadedness, Frequent urination, Appetite loss or a metallic taste in mouth, Numbness or tingling in hands, feet, or mouth and possible vision loss.
Altitude Sickness Natural Remedies, Herbal Remedies and Supplements
Used throughout the Himalayas by Sherpas while tackling hikes and climbs such as Mt Everest and K2. Cordyceps Sinensis research shows that it actives NRf2 which in a nutshell, increases oxygen molecule effectiveness in the body.
A blind study with Ginkgo Biloba provides evidence supporting the use of Ginkgo Biloba for Altitude Sickness prevention. Arterial Oxygen was increased after 24 hours of use.
This likely won’t help anyone, as this alternative is Illegal in the United States most other countries. However, research show coca leaves is an excellent natural remedy for altitude sickness.
Oxygen Max Natural Supplement
Shameless plug, we know. Oxygen Max was initially designed to prevent Altitude Sickness. Though it isn’t the only supplement on the market that was designed for this purpose. It is the first, the only one that uses Cordyceps(Cordyceps is expensive) and it is the only commercially sold naturally supplement being research by a major university for its effectiveness in battling altitude sickness.
How to Avoid Altitude Sickness
The best way to avoid altitude sickness all together is to not go above 8000 feet.
Acclimate – Another approach is to acclimate to the altitude. To do this correctly, you do need a significant amount of time depending on how high you want to go. Travel to 3000 feet for 24 hours. Then you would actively(walk, Hike, Run, Bike) increase your altitude by 5000 feet and then decrease by 3000 feet. Do this daily until you acclimate to the altitude goal you set whether its 8,000 feet or 29,029 feet(Mt Everest).
Staying hydrated days in advance could help prevent common altitude symptoms.
What are Altitude Sickness Cures?
No cures for Altitude Sickness exist, it’s not a disease it is a situational condition that is completely avoidable. Though it is not fun to avoid it, because mountains are awesome.
HAPE and HACE
High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral edema (HACE) are extreme high altitude complications. In most cases, these complications do not occur. However, it is important to familiarize yourself with the differences, especially if you are planning an extended trip above 8,000 to 15000 feet distant from civilization and medical assistance.
Altitude Sickness VS High Altitude Pulmonary Edema
High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) – HAPE is a life-threatening case of non-cardiogenic pulmonary edema. It is unknown what actually causes HAPE, it can occur in healthy individuals. HAPE is the major cause of death that is related to high altitudes. Traveling to High altitudes can cause HAPE, generally well above 8500 feet. Pulmonary edema is not usually caused by high altitudes. If pulmonary edema suddenly develops, seek immediate medical attention.
Altitude Sickness VS High Altitude Cerebral Edema
High Altitude Cerebral edema (HACE) – HACE is a medical condition that causes the brain to swell. It usually occurs in people who have AMS- Acute Mountain Sickness. If HACE usually occurs when the body fails to acclimate to the increase in elevation. Increasing slowly can help prevent HACE. If HACE does occur, decrease elevation and seek medical attention. If HACE is left untreated, it can cause death after 48 hours.
NOTE: I mention pulmonary and cerebral edema since it has been included in most blog posts I read in regards to altitude sickness. While they could be and likely are caused by the rapid increase in elevation, which is shared with Altitude Sickness. All three conditions do differ and it is important to understand the differences.
Throughout our travels well above 8000 feet, we honestly can tell you that the complications are real. We have definitely experienced altitude sickness. Most of us here have acclimated and can travel to high elevations without any issues. That being said the altitude can still slow us down. AMS is the reason Hightly exists and we continuously research the subject. We have sat in on Major university studies and will always love geeking out on the topic. Feel free to ask us anything…