High Altitude Illness

High altitude illness, more commonly known as acute mountain sickness, refers to the effect on the human body from exposure to a lower barometric pressure (more precisely, the lower amount of oxygen). High altitude illness can affect: rock climbers, skiers, those flying in airplanes or spacecraft, and balloons, or glider pilots. The exact mechanism of acute mountain sickness remains unclear, although a number of theories have been advanced regarding the effects of hypoxia (reduction in oxygen) on the cellular level. Occurrence depends on several factors: age, location, and rate of ascent (rapid rates being the worst). It has been estimated that 67% of people above altitudes of 12,000 feet will have symptoms and 12% of those reaching altitudes of 8,000 or 9,000 feet will also have symptoms. High altitude symptoms generally occur hours to days after the ascent and have been reported at heights as low as 5,000 feet.

Common symptoms of uncomplicated acute mountain sickness include: nausea, vomiting, a headache that is relieved by aspirin, and rapid heart beat (100 beats per minute or more for an adult). Increased breathing difficulty is seen in more severe cases (see high altitude pulmonary edema below) Dangerous symptoms of acute mountain illness include: difficulty walking or with balance, marked behavioral or emotional changes, assistance needed with daily functions, poor judgment, rapid breathing while at rest (30 breaths per minute or more in an adult), a headache unrelieved by aspirin, and a persistent dry cough at night. These symptoms can progress to more specific high altitude illness complications.


High altitude pulmonary edema - This refers to the abnormal deposition of fluid into the lungs, resulting in compromised air exchange and shortness of breath. The patient requires IMMEDIATE descent for the symptoms to abate. This problem usually occurs above 8,000 feet and its onset is progressive over 1 to 3 days. High altitude cerebral edema - This refers to an abnormal swelling in the brain and is the most difficult complication to treat. It seldom occurs at levels under 12,000 feet. Headache, exhaustion, and dizziness are the common SYMPTOMS which may progress to hallucinations with confusion. DESCENT IS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY IN ALL CASES.

Treatment: In cases of MILD illness, one may choose to remain at the elevationto acclimatize (gradually over several days), or descend to a lower altitude. Complications require immediate descent to a lower elevation, often as little as 500 feet can make a difference. Some diuretics (Lasix) have been used successfully in the treatment of acute illness. Prevention: Studies have shown acetazolamide (Diamox) to be ineffective in treatment, however it can be quite effective in PREVENTION. This should be taken twice a day, starting 2 days prior to ascent, and continued for the first week of your stay at a higher elevation. A gradual ascent is also good prevention. Try not to increase the altitude at which you will sleep by more than 1,000 feet per day. Discuss with your physician any decision to take medications for prevention of this common illness.

Hope this article will provide you information about high altitude illness.

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