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.
Table of Contents
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:
- Dizziness, nausea, and vomiting
- A headache, body ache and muscle aches
- Insomnia and irritability
- Loss of appetite and weakness
- Rapid heartbeat and breathlessness
- Physical exertion
- Swelling of the hands, feet, and face
Severe Acute Mountain Sickness Symptoms:
- Continuous coughing and chest congestion
- Severe breathlessness
- Pale complexion and skin discoloration
- Inability to walk, lack of balance, or disorientation
- A severe headache, altered vision
- Hallucinations, seizures, and coma
- 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.
Build stamina and do lung exercises for months in advance before the trek
Get medical check-up done
Ensure you have no serious health issues
Review the symptoms of mountain sickness so you can recognize and treat them quickly if they occur.
Carry Diamox to adjust your body to high altitudes.
Drink Plenty of water and liquids like green tea/lemon tea
Consume foods high in carbohydrates. Carry dry fruits and nuts
Cocoa relieves altitude sickness
Do not smoke and avoid drinking alcohol
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?
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. If you are planning to trek soon, do check out this interesting post on TIMS Card.
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: Leh Ladakh Road Trip
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.