What is altitude mountain sickness?

It is a sickness that affects mountain hikers, skiers, climbers and travelers at a high altitude. Altitude sickness generally develops at elevations higher than 8,000 feet (about 2,400 meters) above sea level and when the rate of ascent exceeds 1,000 feet (300 meters) per day.

What are the causes of altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness develops when the rate of ascent into higher altitudes outpaces the body’s ability to adjust to those altitudes due to the decreasing levels of oxygen in the air as altitude increases. This results in abnormally low blood levels of oxygen.

Among the actions that may trigger altitude sickness is ascending too rapidly, not allowing enough time for the body to compensate and adapt for decreased oxygen in the air. Next is overexertion within 24 hours of ascent and inadequate fluid intake. Other causes includes hypothermia and consumption of alcohol or other sedatives.
It is possible, depending on the person’s health, that an individual can rapidly go through symptoms of acute mountain sickness and then progress to high-altitude pulmonary edema (HEPA) or high-altitude cerebral edema (HECA) at moderate to high altitudes.

When should a person seek medical care for altitude sickness?

If symptoms such as headache or shortness of breath do not improve promptly with simple changes, visiting a doctor may be helpful if descending to a lower altitude is inconvenient and a doctor is available.
Descend immediately if shortness of breath at rest, mental confusion or lethargy, or loss of muscle coordination develop. Symptoms of most people with acute altitude sickness improve by the time they reach a medical facility, which is usually located at a lower altitude.

How is altitude sickness diagnosed?

The diagnosis of acute altitude sickness is based on the patient’s signs and symptoms. Normally doctors will ask if you recently traveling to a high altitude region. Doctors will also see if you have symptoms that may indicate the altitude sickness such as loss of appetite, generalized weakness, dizziness, shortness of breath during exertion, nausea, or a headache associated with insomnia. The doctor may hear crackles or rattling sound when listening to the patient’s lungs.

Oxygen saturation of the blood will be measured. Shortness of breath at rest, abnormal vital signs, fast heart rate and breathing rate may indicate high altitude pulmonary edema (HEPA). The doctor may treat the patient with fever and cough for pneumonia in addition to high-altitude pulmonary edema. High-altitude cerebral edema (HECA) is diagnosed if a person’s mental state is altered or coordination is lost at high altitude.

What are the basics interventions for altitude sickness?

For milder condition, some basic intervention may be able to help. The first one is to not further ascent in altitude and returning to a lower altitude. Then reduce your activity level and rest for at least one day before moving to a higher altitude. Most importantly, keep yourself hydrated adequately.  If symptoms do not resolve quickly, descend to a lower altitude. If the person develops any signs and symptoms of high-altitude cerebral edema or high-altitude pulmonary edema, they should descend to lower altitude and be seen by emergency medicine physician.

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