What is High Altitude? Altitude is defined on the following: scale High (8,000 - 12,000 feet [2,438 - 3,658 meters]), Very High (12,000 - 18,000 feet [3,658 - 5,487 meters]), and Extremely High (18,000+ feet [5,500+ meters]). Since few people have been to such altitudes, it is hard to know who may be affected. There are no specific factors such as age, sex, or physical condition that correlate with susceptibility to altitude sickness. Some people get it and some people don`t, and some people are more susceptible than others. Most people can go up to 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) with minimal effect. If you haven‘t been to high altitude before, it`s important to be cautious. If you have been at that altitude before with no problem, you can probably return to that altitude without problems as long as you are properly acclimatized.
What Causes Altitude Illnesses
The concentration of oxygen at sea level is about 21% and the barometric pressure averages 760 mmHg. As altitude increases, the concentration remains the same but the number of oxygen molecules per breath is reduced. At 12,000 feet (3,658 meters) the barometric pressure is only 483 mmHg, so there are roughly 40% fewer oxygen molecules per breath. In order to properly oxygenate the body, your breathing rate (even while at rest) has to increase. This extra ventilation increases the oxygen content in the blood, but not to sea level concentrations. Since the amount of oxygen required for activity is the same, the body must adjust to having less oxygen. In addition, for reasons not entirely understood, high altitude and lower air pressure causes fluid to leak from the capillaries which can cause fluid build-up in both the lungs and the brain. Continuing to higher altitudes without proper acclimatization can lead to potentially serious, even life-threatening illnesses.
Prevention of Altitude Illnesses Prevention of altitude illnesse falls into two categories, proper acclimatization and preventive medications. Below are a few basic guidelines for proper acclimatization.
If possible, don`t fly or drive to high altitude. Start below 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) and walk up.
If you do fly or drive, do not over-exert yourself or move higher for the first 24 hours.
If you go above 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), only increase your altitude by 1,000 feet (305 meters) per day and for every 3,000 feet (915 meters) of elevation gained, take a rest day. Climb High and sleep low.
If you begin to show symptoms of moderate altitude illness, don`t go higher until symptoms decrease ("Don`t go up until symptoms go down").
Stay properly hydrated. Acclimatization is often accompanied by fluid loss, so you need to drink lots of fluids to remain properly hydrated (at least 3-4 quarts per day). Urine output should be copious and clear.
Take it easy; don`t over-exert yourself when you first get up to altitude. Light activity during the day is better than sleeping because respiration decreases during sleep, exacerbating the symptoms.
Avoid tobacco and alcohol and other depressant drugs including, barbiturates, tranquilizers, and sleeping pills. These depressants further decrease the respiratory drive during sleep resulting in a worsening of the symptoms.
Eat a high carbohydrate diet (more than 70% of your calories from carbohydrates) while at altitude.
The acclimatization process is inhibited by dehydration, over-exertion, and alcohol and other depressant drugs.
Preventive Medications Diamox (Acetazolamide) allows you to breathe faster so that you metabolize more oxygen, thereby minimizing the symptoms caused by poor oxygenation. This is especially helpful at night when respiratory drive is decreased.
Dexamethasone (a steroid) is a prescription drug that decreases brain and other swelling reversing the effects of AMS. Dosage is typically 4 mg twice a day for a few days starting with the ascent.