Altitude Sickness - A Complete Guide

  • Feb 1, 2020
  • Prashan Poudyal
  • 1761

Table of Contents

Are you the fittest person in the gym? Are you the sportiest or say, the most athletic person in your group? Well, you can still be the victim of Altitude Sickness. Chris Hemsworth, in one of his interview with Jimmy Kimmel explained about how he started getting shortness of breath while ascending above 4000 m in the Himalayas. Turns out, he almost died from altitude sickness. The mighty ‘Thor’ getting Altitude Sickness. Unbelievable, right?

Hey, don’t worry! This article isn’t about scaring you. In fact, it is about preparing and taking all the right measures to prevent you from getting the Altitude Sickness.

However, there are still people like Jorden Romero from the USA and Yuichiro Miura from Japan, who successfully climbed Mt. Everest (8848) at the age of 13 and 80 being the youngest and the oldest person to have successfully climbed Mt. Everest respectively. Interestingly, Italian Climber, Reinhold Messner summited Everest without using any supplementary oxygen.
Now let alone, trekking in the high altitude, these guys further managed to summit the mountain itself leaving behind this 'sickness' with the Yetis – ‘nowhere to be found’. Now, along with them, thousands of trekkers and climbers trek through these high elevations each year. Thing is, they all took the right measures to prevent this.

So, let’s talk about Altitude Sickness.

What is Altitude Sickness?

Altitude Sickness, or say High-Altitude Sickness refers to a set of symptoms that affects the people at a very high altitude, usually above 3000m (10,000 ft) due to the presence of very less oxygen and low atmospheric pressure. It can be derived into three versions:

1)Acute Mountain Sickness(AMS): It is the mildest and the most common form.

2) High Altitude Pulmonary Edema(HAPE): It means an accumulation of fluid in the lungs. In short, it affects the lungs.

3)High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) : It means an accumulation of fluid inside the brain and is considered the most severe. In short, it affects the brain.


Symptoms of Altitude sickness

AMS: The most basic symptoms of Altitude Sickness are:

  • headache
  • nausea and vomiting
  • dizziness
  • tiredness
  • loss of appetite
  • shortness of breath

If these symptoms of AMS are ignored, it can get even more serious with other HAPE and HACE symptoms.

HAPE: The symptoms of HAPE include:

  • Dry Cough (May cough blood)
  • Shortness of breath/Tightening in the chest
  • Noisy Breathing
  • Blueness of lips, tips of fingers and tongue

HACE: The symptoms of HACE include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea and Vomiting
  • Delirious (hallucinations)
  • Highly irritable
  • Drunken Gait
  • loss of coordination

In brief, if the basic AMS symptoms arise, one must immediately take the right measures to prevent it from being more fatal. However, if HACE and HAPE symptoms arise, one must immediately descend from the high elevation and be referred to the nearby hospital.

How to prevent Altitude Sickness?

"Slow and steady wins the race"
Everyone must have definitely heard this phrase. It is more appropriable while trekking/climbing in the high altitude. This is the golden rule for the prevention of altitude sickness. To put it in short, this can also be referred to as ACCLIMATIZATION

Acclimatization: - It refers to adapting your body’s condition with the environment. These are the basic rules of acclimatization:

  •  Walk Slowly: Ascending slowly towards higher elevation helps your lungs to adapt to new conditions.
  •  Rest Days: Usually when you are ascending above, 3000m, rest a day after every 3-4 trekking days
  •  Don’t ascend more than 500 m high in a day (above 3500 m)
  •  Climb High/Sleep Low

Therefore, Preventive Measures for Altitude Sickness can be listed as:

  1. Wear according to weather(Always keep sufficient warm layers with you while going to high elevations)
  2. Eat Plenty(Consume enough calories/mostly carbohydrates)
  3. Stay hydrated(Drink 4-5 liters of water daily)
  4. Acclimatization
  5. Avoid smoking, alcohol, tobacco and sleeping pills
  6. Do not ascend further if you notice any signs/symptoms of altitude sickness. If serious, descend immediately.

It’s better if you carry these medicines, in case:

  • Paracetamol for headaches.
  • High altitude sickness medicines like Diamox, acetazolamide.

High Altitude Sickness Treatment

The first rule for treating Altitude Sickness is DESCEND.
The second important rule for treating Altitude Sickness is DESCEND. Yeah, you got it. Descending is the most important treatment one can get.

So, let’s summarize the Descending process as below:

  •  Descend one camp down if the symptoms are mild (place where you slept yesterday). In average, 300-400 meters down,
  •  Descend immediately if the symptoms are serious. It must be more than 1000 meters. In this case, one must receive supplementary oxygen with immediate medical attention.

    Even if the slightest basic symptoms arise, rest in that area, stay hydrated and eat well and most importantly do not ascend further until your symptoms disappear completely.

Besides descending, there are some temporary treatments that one can get at a high altitude such as:

  •  Supplementary Oxygen
  •  Gamow Bag (Portable Altitude Chamber (PAC))
In conclusion, High Altitude Sickness can be life-threatening as well as not a serious condition at the same time, if taken the right measures in most of the cases. At Shepherd Holidays, in all of our organized trekking activities; the health and safety of our clients comes under the upmost priority. Our well experienced and qualified trekking guides are trained to spot the early signs and symptoms of High Altitude Sickness and take preventive measures, providing you with the best safety while trekking at high altitude areas. Click Here to know how Shepherd Holidays provides the best safety measures to ensure your safety during your lifetime experience in Nepal.

Hundreds of our clients have already trekked to high altitude areas like Everest Base Camp, Thorang la pass (Annapurna Circuit), Annapurna Base Camp, Langtang Valley, Manaslu Circuit(Larke La pass) and many other high elevation areas. And we have ensured them with the best possible safety and measures to prevent any emergencies from happening.
If you want to be part of a lifetime experience here in Nepal, Contact us for any queries. Shepherd Holidays is always at your service. In the meantime, you can also explore many other trekking and tour activities in Nepal, Tibet, and India.