Nepal Hiking

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Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness, also known as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) occurs on those who ascend the mountains too rapidly to elevation of 3,000m or above. It is a natural reaction by the body as it attempts to acclimate itself to the high altitudes, pressure differences, lack of oxygen, dry atmosphere and other changes. Common symptoms of altitude sickness include: headaches, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, severe lack of appetite, burning, dizziness, fatigue and increased urination. Due to the lack of oxygen, other symptoms may occur in certain individuals including the inability to sleep, giddiness, lips and fingertips turning bluish purple, drowsiness and other symptoms. Due to the dry atmosphere, others might experience nosebleeds, rough skin, chapped lips or (in more serious cases) blood clots. No one can predict who will be affected by altitude sickness whether it be elderly people, physically young, strong or fit or those in poor physical shape. Medicine itself can be no substitute unless patients suffering from such sickness are immediately rushed downhill.

Other extremely vulnerable groups include those with respiratory dysfunction, heart or cardiovascular disease, psychiatric disorders, or other serious health problems are advised to consult their doctors to ensure that they do not have any serious respiratory or cardiovascular health problems while trekking in the mountains.

The following are the basic symptoms of the altitude sickness

Basic Symptoms

  • Loss of appetite
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Difficult to pass urine

Medium Symptoms

  • Light-headedness
  • Irregular breathing
  • Nausea
  • Mild weakness

Serious Symptoms

  • Slight swelling of hands and face
  • Cannot stand upright without swaying while eyes are closed
  • Can hear gurgling sound in the chest
  • Zero energy

How to prevent altitude sickness?

Do not ascend if above altitude sickness symptoms develop. Stop until the symptoms resolve (usually 24-48 hrs) or descend. Descending will usually make the symptoms go more quickly.

Ascent can be continued when these symptoms subside, usually after 24-48 hrs.

  • Do not keep ascending
  • Drink plenty
  • Avoid alcohol and sedatives

Or, you may take a Diamox 250mg tablet the night before flying / going to higher altitude. After the symptoms soon disappear and the trek can be resumed. Diamox increases the amount of urine produced and changes the acidity of the blood. The net effect is to improve breathing and reduce fluid around the brain and in the lungs

If you feel you are affected by the serious symptoms of AMS then descent should not be delayed no matter you have to descend even at night. In such case, immediate evacuation by helicopter or porter has to be arranged to bring you down at lower altitude.

For more serious cases of AMS, or where rapid descent is not possible, a Gamow bag, a portable plastic hyperbaric chamber inflated with a foot pump, can be used to reduce the effective altitude by as much as 1,500 meters (5,000 ft). A Gamow bag is generally used only as an aid to evacuate severe AMS patients, not to treat them at altitude.