ALTITUDE SICKNESS

What is altitude sickness and why should I care about it? In the below article, you will find answers to these two questions. Please be aware that this article is to give an understanding of altitude sickness and is not a medical paper of any sort. You should consult your own doctor before going in high altitudes.

Altitude sickness and symptoms

Altitude sickness is a condition experienced in higher altitude and typically from about 2.500 meters and above, although this varies a lot, and some may even experience below 2.500 meters and others won't feel a thing even in much higher altitudes. When you ascend to higher altitudes the available oxygen decreases and you will feel breathing becomes more difficult as you will inhale less oxygen than at the surface. It's a strange feeling to get exhausted walking in a straight line, but that is the reality in high altitudes. 

The symptoms are very similar to a bad hangover and include;

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Shortness of breath
  • nausea/vomiting

Typically, these symptoms occur 6-10 hours after ascending and may last up to a couple of days if you stay at the same altitude. When trekking in high altitudes, these symptoms are often confused to natural response to the physical challenge of hiking in the mountains. If these symptoms are ignored or you ascend fast with no or little fluid you might experience severe symptoms such as a persistent dry cough, fever and or shortness of breath even while resting. This can be sign of fluid in your lungs. Also, under severe circumstances, your brain might swallow up causing severe headache, loss of consciousness, vomiting and more. If severe symptoms are felt the only thing to do is to get down at lower altitudes and get down fast. The most severe symptoms arise from edema, which is fluid accumulated in the tissues of the body which can be fatal.

How to avoid altitude sickness

How do you then avoid altitude sickness? It’s important to say, that no one is exempted from the risk of altitude sickness. Gender, age, physical condition doesn’t matter. We recently had an expedition in North India where a marathon runner was the first to go down due to altitude sickness. There are though measures and precautions to limit your exposure to altitude sickness:

  • When spending a lot of time and being active in high altitudes your body needs to adjust. This is called acclimatization and is done by either staying at the same altitude for an extended period of time (have an extra day in basecamp before ascending for the summit) or to make sure you ascend during the day and descend to a lower altitude to set up camp and sleep for the night. That way you slowly push your body to the higher altitudes a little bit day by day.
  • Walk slow. What’s that saying – slow and steady wins the race? Nothing is truer for high altitude trekking. Go at your own pace but don’t ascend too fast. This is actually when being very fit can be a disadvantage as you’re not naturally slowing down due to fatigue and exhaustion.
  • Stay hydrated and drink plenty of water. 3-4 liters of water each day is not an overestimation but a must. Really, drink as much water as you can. And stay away from alcohol.

When choosing your next high altitude trek or adventure we only recommend looking around to find the most trusted operator. Safety is the most important aspect and a good indicator of a responsible operator are the ones which tours are a 1 or 2 days longer than the other tours and not the cheapest. Picking the fastest and cheapest tour you are likely to rush and not acclimatise properly and it is likely that their safety measures aren't adequate, such as having a satellite phone to call for a rescue helicopter. Should an accident happen or altitude sickness occur, a helicopter is the fastes way down to safety. Another very important reminder is to double check that your insurance company covers high altitude activity and helicopter rescue. 

Taking these measures dramatically increases your chances of reaching your summit and avoid altitude sickness. Our high altitude trekking tours are planned accordingly and might not be the cheapest or the fastes tour, but we take every measure to bring you all the way to the top and down again safely and comfortably. 

In summary, altitude sickness is to be taken seriously and is a factor for everyone in high altitudes. However, take your precautions to avoid symptoms and if you do get them anyway, consult your guide, take it easy and always listen to the guides recommendations. We’d also advise you to consult your doctor before going to discuss possibility of altitude sickness pills.

 

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Simon Zall in Tarangire National Park
Safari & Zanzibar

I contacted Bikudo Travel for advice on a 2 week journey with my girlfriend. We ended up going to Tanzania for safari and beaches and it was one of the best experiences we've had!

Simon at Tarangire NP