How to deal with Acute Mountain Sickness

Mountain climbing is an addiction that is hard to resist. The deeper you fall for mountains the higher you rise in life. The best views come after harder climbs. But what if you fall much before reaching the summit? What if you are doing the dream trek of your life and your body gives up midway to Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)? Would you turn back or continue doing the Everest Base Camp Trek despite the illness? Here’s everything you need to know about Acute Mountain Sickness: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention.

At the Everest Base Camp

At the Everest Base Camp

What is Acute Mountain Sickness

Acute mountain Sickness, also known as altitude sickness or high altitude pulmonary edema, typically occurs at about 8,000 feet, or 2,400 meters, above sea level. The common symptoms are dizziness, nausea, headache, loss of appetite and breathlessness. Most often the altitude sickness cases are mild and heal quickly. In few cases, altitude sickness can become lethal.

Causes of Acute Mountain Sickness

As you gain height with higher altitudes, the oxygen levels and air pressure decreases. When you drive or hike up a mountain, or go skiing from a lower altitude to a higher altitude at a fast pace, your body may not have enough time to adjust. This can result in acute mountain sickness. Exertion also adds up to the woes.

Symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness

The symptoms generally appear within hours of moving to higher altitudes and vary depending on the severity of your condition.

Mild Acute Mountain Sickness Symptoms:

  1. Dizziness, nausea, and vomiting
  2. A headache, body ache and muscle aches
  3. Insomnia and irritability
  4. Loss of appetite and weakness
  5. Rapid heartbeat and breathlessness
  6. Physical exertion
  7. Swelling of the hands, feet, and face

Severe Acute Mountain Sickness Symptoms:

  1. Continuous coughing and chest congestion
  2. Severe breathlessness
  3. Pale complexion and skin discoloration
  4. Inability to walk, lack of balance, or disorientation
  5. A severe headache, altered vision
  6. Hallucinations, seizures, and coma
  7. Social withdrawal

Treatment of Acute Mountain Sickness

Acute Mountain Sickness treatment varies depending on its severity. You might be able to avoid complications by simply returning to a lower altitude. If severe symptoms persist, you might require oxygen or hospitalization. Here is what you should do:

1.     Descend to Lower Altitude

  • For mild acute mountain sickness, you can stay at your existing altitude to see if your body adjusts. If symptoms don’t improve within 24-48 hours or if they get worse, you should descend to a lower altitude and seek immediate medical assistance.
  • Even if symptoms are mild, you should not gain altitude until there are no AMS symptoms.
  • For severe symptoms, you should immediately descend 1,500 to 2,000 feet with as little exertion as possible. Descend until you show no more AMS symptoms. Take medical aid right away as waiting could be lethal.

2.     Treat Symptoms

  • Drink plenty of liquids
  • Keep yourself warm and take rest
  • Take blood pressure medicine
  • Use lung inhalers
  • Have Diamox (Acetazolamide) for breathing problems
  • Take disprin (Aspirin) or ibuprofen for headache relief

3.     Consult a Doctor

  • If mild symptoms persist after the descent, call a health care provider.
  • For severe symptoms, see a doctor as soon as possible

Prevention of Acute Mountain Sickness

While it is beyond one to predict whether they’ll get AMS or not, you can take some important precautions to reduce your chances of Acute Mountain Sickness.

  1. Remain fit

    Build stamina and do lung exercises for months in advance before the trek

  2. Get medical check-up done

    Ensure you have no serious health issues

  3. Be aware

    Review the symptoms of mountain sickness so you can recognize and treat them quickly if they occur.

  4. Go prepared

    Carry Diamox to adjust your body to high altitudes.

  5. Stay hydrated

    Drink Plenty of water and liquids like green tea/lemon tea

  6. Eat Well

    Consume foods high in carbohydrates. Carry dry fruits and nuts

  7. Carry chocolates

    Cocoa relieves altitude sickness

  8. Avoid

    Do not smoke and avoid drinking alcohol

  9. Acclimatize

    In my 12 days Everest Base Camp trek, I had two days to rest and acclimatize to altitude, but if you are not in a hurry, why not do a 16-day trek and go at a leisurely pace?

  10. Book with a reliable Trekking company

    A company whose staff is knowledgeable, well-connected and customer service oriented.Explore Himalaya was great in this department because they not only had a professional setup but also own Everest Inn Lodges and Helicopter service. But I am no way recommending them; there are a lot of good companies (of course I think mine is the best), but just try to establish a rapport early to be sure they got your back when you need them.

  11. Take rescue insurance

    When doing a high altitude trek, you should ALWAYS take Rescue Insurance, which includes air ambulance as well as helicopter evacuation. If the AMS gets serious then there is no option but to airlift, which costs more than US$ 2500 for a helicopter evacuation from 4000m near Mt. Everest and up to US$ 5000 for a rescue in the far west. My friend did not take rescue insurance and ended up spending USD$ 8000 on his EBC trek. Read the entire story here.

Acute Mountain Sickness is a serious thing. Don’t think twice before turning back. Your life is far more precious than climbing a mountain. You can always trek again but you only get one life. Have you ever faced Acute Mountain Sickness? How did you cope up with it?

Related: How to do the Everest Base Camp Trek despite Acute Mountain Sickness

Related:  Leh Ladakh Road Trip

How to survive Acute Mountain Sickness

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Disclaimer

I was invited by Nepal Tourism Board for the Himalayan Travel Mart in Nepal. The Everest Base Camp Trek was organised by Explore Himalaya. All the experiences shared above, like always, are based on my (Archana Singh’s) personal experiences. Pictures posted above were clicked by me during the trek.

 

 

27 Comments

  • Lydia Smith says:

    Wow. Such a detailed list. I’m serious, you’d pass for a travelers’ doctor. My doctor would not have said as much as you’ve written, thank you for this post. It’s sure a blessing for my future tours, trekking and non trekking. But I’m not sure I’d be able to commit to trekking to Mt Everest. I still hold you high for the feat you achieved; I read your post detailing your Everest Trek

  • Rachelle says:

    I love that you suggest carrying chocolate. It reminded me of the Harry Potter books! I live at about 5,000 feet above sea level, and whenever I have visitors from Florida or California, they usually have a hard time adjusting. Granted, it’s not Everest-level-sickness, but still, it’s a legit thing. I usually have to stock up on water bottles whenever I have visitors. It’s one of the easiest things to hopefully help!

  • Suzanne says:

    I haven’t been trekking at high altitudes so I don’t know if I’ll ever experience acute mountain sickness. I think it’s something a lot of travelers don’t take seriously, something that could have serious health-related consequences. Your post is very helpful in recommending ways to treat, minimize, and prevent it. Also, I had no idea cocoa/chocolate helps!

  • Jamie says:

    I have saved your infographic – very helpful! I don’t think I’ll ever be trekking at those extreme high altitudes, but I do hike high altitudes in the Rockies and exhibit some mild symptoms, especially the tight chest. Now I have a reason to carry chocolate! Ha!

  • Lyf&Spice says:

    I have never trekked at such high altitudes. Most of my treks are actually hikes confined to hills or mountains/volcanoes in South East Asia that offer jungle trails. I love the way you have outlined the important points, a header at a time.

  • Abigail Sinsona says:

    That infographic is so useful! It is a great way to learn all the practical details about the challenges of mountain climbing. It just makes you appreciate mountain climbers some more. It is no easy feat!

  • Paulina says:

    That post is just super useful. I love hiking, and whenever I can I go to the mountains. In this case, the Alps are the closest. But I haven’t been mountain sick yet. I will keep this post for the future when I climb higher peaks.

  • James says:

    I did receive acute mountain sickness the first time I went over 4000 meters in the Atacama desert. Fortunately I was in a bus which was just passing over a high pass in the road. Later it descended but I had a headache and my head was spinning. For some reason I desperately needed the toilet as well which was unusual. I agree with your point 100% about descending! Later that trip I managed to reach over 5000 meters and was OK but a lot of others in the group were vomiting etc…

  • Lisa says:

    These are some excellent tips here. I’m sure I would suffer from AMS, so would be taking your advice. Building up lung strength and general fitness is a must to do something like this. I’m glad to see ‘carry chocolates’ is on this list, I’ll do that!

  • Bee says:

    This a great post to help with AMS and i love the visuals you provided at the end too. AMS can really ruin the experience and I got a fair share of the warning before I went to Machu Picchu. I heard cocoa leaves are definitely the best cure, but if it gets serious you’ll need help. i like the tips you gave for before embarking on a journey like this

  • Jasmin says:

    Mountain sickness is a bitch. I’ve only suffered from mild one but it was an absolutely horrible experience. Hadn’t spent enough time to get adjusted to the altitude in Guatemala before peaking a volcano and let’s just say that going from sea level to hiking to 3.7km peak wasn’t the best idea. Decided to keep going as my symptoms weren’t severe and I couldn’t have made it down from the volcano before it got dark but if I had been closer to the ground level when I got the symptoms I may have as well just turned back.

  • Great post. I suffer from acute mountain sickness and take Diamox when I travel to higher altitude. But that doesn’t stop me from going to places with higher elevation. Everest is on my list!

  • Vicki Louise says:

    This is such a great list about the consequences and cures for altitude sickness. It would be a horrible way to ruin a perfectly good trek. And just goes to show the importance of preparation and giving yourself enough time to acclimatize, not just before the climb but along the way too as you climb higher.

  • That’s a very useful post! Everest Base Camp trek is very much in my wishlist! But yeah, I was worried about altitude sickness! Though I’ve done a few treks and hikes, EBC is all together a challenging terrain in a cold climate. Thanks for this informative post.

  • Jaypee says:

    Thanks for highlighting the importance of preventing Mountain Sickness. A lot of climbers take this for granted and surely you shared very helpful information here. I’m also aiming to visit Everest Base Camp one day. I’m so jealous! 😀

  • I would hate to go to Everest and then suffer from AMS. I would be SO bummed! I remember that we got drilled over and over when visiting Machu Picchu. I made sure that I carried lots of coca leaves. Luckily, I never had issues while there. Thank you for such a detailed and informative post. I will definitely come back when I head to my next high altitude trek.

  • Rahul Khurana says:

    These is very informative. Iblove trekking and will surely remeber these points during my next major trek.

  • Very useful post. Going to bookmark this. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Swati Jain says:

    AMS is a serious condition but I see a lot of people taking it for granted. They choose to ignore which is why some of them suffer seriously at the end. Your post is really informative and you have given some great tips to identify AMS. Loved it!

  • Mimi & Mitch says:

    Cocoa indeed prevents it! Our hotel in Bolivia gave us a full pack of cocoa leaves to chew as the tradition! We would love to do the base camp, it is so high in our wishlist! This is super useful for any high altitude treks, thanks.

  • Mimi & Mitch says:

    Cocoa indeed prevents it! Our hotel in Bolivia gave us a full pack of cocoa leaves to chew as the tradition! We would love to do the base camp, it is so high in our wish-list! This is super useful for any high altitude treks, thanks.

  • Lois Alter Mark says:

    This is such good information – and so important. Everyone needs to know this before they attempt something like Everest. That would be devastating.

  • Hannah says:

    Oh goodness, I’d never even heard of acute mountain travel sickness! Although I’d heard of people getting really ill and the effects of too little oxygen etc. This is a super comprehensive guide and I love the infographic; we’d love to visit Nepal so if we ever decide to climb Everest I’ll be hitting you up for tips!

  • Claire Summers says:

    This is exactly what I need! I’m just starting to plan a Base Camp Trek with some of my girl friends. I’m not going until 2019 so I have plenty of time to plan! I’ve been hiking a lot of volcanos in Central America and I’ve found hydration is a big key start a few days before. Great advice pinned your info graph too, so helpful!

  • Kate Storm says:

    Great advice on here! I always feel a little woozy from the altitude if I go too high, too fast, but never had anything this drastic happen! I’d love to do the base camp trek one day–something to plan for in the future.

  • Rose Clara says:

    Thanks for such amazing advices, these are really helpful. bcoz I had suffered that during my tour to india..thanks Archana Singh Again…

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