Friday, March 24, 2006

Altitude Sickness, How High is Too High

When skiing, mountain climbing, or hiking, please remember that the altered consciousness and dizziness accompanied by the rapid breathing that you are noticing may not be from the natural high that you are experiencing but from the effects of altitude sickness.

Altitude sickness can affect any one of any sex, age or physical fitness. It can occur at any altitude above 5000 ft. (lake Tahoe), but it is more common above 8000 ft. (Machu Picchu, Peru). In a study of hikers in the Swiss Alps, 13% developed symptoms at 10,000 ft. and 34% became symptomatic at 12,000 ft.
BMJ. 1990 Oct 13;301(6756):853-5.
Maggiorini M, Buhler B, Walter M, Oelz O.

It may be prevented by climbing slowly. It is usually not a problem to climb up to 5000 ft in 1 day. Above 8000 ft, a rate of 1500 ft (460 m)/day is recommended. When climbing above 10,000 ft, it would be best to acclimatize by staying at 6000-8000 ft. for 2-4 days. however, many of us hurry through our vacations due to a lack of time and skip the acclimatization process. Staying hydrated can also help.

Early symptoms are headache, insomnia, and swelling of legs which may start 12-24 hours after arriving at the altitude. If ignored, the symptoms may progress to vomiting, dizziness, difficulty breathing, and in worst case scenario death from brain herniation due to increased intracranial pressure.

If any of these symptoms occur, the definitive treatment is to descend. Supplemental oxygen is helpful if available.
There are medications such as Diamox (acetazolamide), and Decadron (dexamethasone) which help the symptoms. Ask your doctor about them if you are prone to altitude sickness. They may be taken preventively.

The Medical Letter on Drugs and Therapeutics, May, 2004; (21) pp. 33-40
The MERCK Manual, Sec. 20, Ch. 281
Photo: altitude.jpg


High Power Rocketry said...

Are you including HAPE in this? Because HAPE and simple altitude sickness can be very different.

Extreme-chick said...

I live at 5500 hundred feet and have never had altitude sickness. I never really considered it to be high altitude though because of the climate(I live in a desert). Interesting stuff.

Matthew Bamberg said...

This is really good to know because next month the Digital Traveler (that would be me) is going to Potosi Bolivia, the highest city in the world (over 13,000 feet).

Wish me luck~

Anonymous said...

Never considered altitude sickness when planning a dude ranch vacation in Medicine Bow Mts outside Laramie (only about 8500 ft). Unfortunately, I was also awaiting a UAE procedure for fibroids and severly anemic. I was sick and weak most of the time (thank God the horses did all the work) but felt like a whole new woman back at sea level. It's no fun to wake up every night hyperventilating and tachycardic. Anemia and altitude do not mix!

Ron said...

I went to Tibet last summer and I had altitude sickness but once i got the IV bag that "cured" altitude sickness, i felt fine after that!

Unknown said...

when my niece cliimbed Mount logan I gave her Coca 30ch which is a homeopathic remedy and she said it worked wonders and she never took a tylenol or any of the drugs the others took. I also gave her Arnica 200ch pills for physical accidents and aconitum for colds and emotional shock and of course Bach rescue remedy for all the mental stuff of high climbs. they were out for 50 days and all hte remedies were used. Have a look at my kit that I put together after working on film sets for 15 years using alternates as they have no side effects.
John Board
ergo health products Inc.
TOLL FREE: 1-866-977-5264
T/F 416-977-5264
CELL 647 519-5264
“Good health is a matter of personal choice and appropriate action.”

Anonymous said...

Although usualy I'm doing something different antyki i obrazy but two or three times in year with my friends going climbing to high mountains - I'm familiar with this subject.
I agree that diamox is very good but I didn't have any ... "toilet issues".
In next year we going to Himalayas and thank you for this post.

Anonymous said...

how about avoiding high altitudes :)...

Anonymous said...

I had an episode last year when climbing the Whistler Blackcomb in Canada at barely 5000 feet, becoming very sick and thinking I had the altitude sickness....WRONG!!!...well,I found out later that I had a single pulmonary artery which led to my lungs getting filled up faster with fluid than it would a person with two arteries, causing greater difficulty in breathing as a result I had to stop and descend and this decision probably saved my life....I had what is know as HAPE and it is not limited to those with sigle pulmonary artery, if I had not changed course the next step would have been coma and death...I figured we should watch out and note the difference as we climb....Good luck to every climber.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Taos Herb Company sells a good product which counteracts altitude sickness -- I always give it to my guests when they visit me up in the mountains

Anonymous said...

very thanks

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Jenn said...

I just came back from Cedar City, UT, but I live in Las Vegas, NV and have so for about 7 years now. As soon as I got into Cedar City and got out of my car (about 5800 elev) I got nausous and was convinced I was going to vomit...I got very lightheaded and felt as though I was made from jello. We got in the car and when we were about 20 miles south *downhill* from Cedar City I was wide awake and never felt better. Weird thing about it though is that I used to live in Utah before Vegas so about 7 years ago and was at 4500 elevation...Is it wise for me to stay away from anything higher than 5000? Vegas runs between 2-4k but mount charleston gets upwards of 8K...