How mild and severe altitude sickness affects your health

Altitude sickness is a health condition that is usually experienced by persons who rapidly ascend to higher altitudes. This is attributed to reduced levels of oxygen in the body due to the sudden changes in atmospheric pressure. Among the people with high chances of being affected by the condition are those who participate in sporting activities like hiking, skiing, biking and mountain climbing.

Mild altitude sickness
For some people, some mild symptoms of altitude sickness can start appearing even at lower altitudes of between 1500-2000 m above sea level. These may include headaches, nausea, fatigue and insomnia. There are other symptoms that will start appearing with increased ascent including stomach upset, respiratory problems, sleeping difficulties, tiredness, vomiting and increased heart rate among others.

If you are experiencing any mild symptom, you should stop making further ascent for around 24 to 48 hours. This will give your body enough time to adapt to the new conditions. You should consider descending to lower altitudes, by about 500m, if you do not realize any positive improvements.

Severe attitude sickness
Severe altitude sickness is usually experienced by persons ascending higher altitudes of between 3,500 and 5600m. This is accompanied by common symptoms like walking difficulties, double vision, drowsiness, convulsions, clumsiness, confusion, breathlessness and persistent cough. These signs are considered life threatening, and they can contribute to serious health complications.

There is a more severe case of altitude sickness called high-altitude edema and this is characterized by fluid build-up in the lungs. Most patients experiencing this condition usually suffer from pulmonary edema that is linked to respiratory problems like.
• Extreme breathing difficulties
• Coughing frothy sputum
• Chest pains
• Rapid and irregular heartbeat

The most severe case is cerebral edema that is characterized by swelling and build-up of fluid in the brain. This affects the proper functioning of the brain and contributes to serious health conditions like speaking difficulties, limb paralysis, hallucinations, coma and even death. Those experiencing such symptoms should descend to lower altitudes immediately.

Most of the mild conditions will clear with ease after the body adapts to the changes in altitude although some may require you to descend a few meters. There are some measures that you can take to promote quick recovery including:
• Consuming more fluids to stay hydrated
• Resting without exercising
• Avoiding alcohol and smoking

If you were experiencing any symptom associated with severe altitude sickness, you should seek immediate medical assistance even with a full recovery. This is important to avoid cases of complex health problems like coma, partial or entire body paralysis and possible death. It is wise to inform your friends immediately you start experiencing any mild symptoms so that they can start looking out for you.

For mild conditions like headaches, you can take painkillers like ibuprofen or paracetamol. You can also treat nausea or vomiting by using antiemetic medication like promethazine. Oxygen treatment can provide a temporary solution to severe conditions especially for those at higher altitudes. The affected persons should then be moved to lower altitudes.

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