Writing for the Altitude website, Dr. J. Kenneth Baillie warns that “every year, people die of altitude sickness.” This is a death, which the physician believes to be completely preventable. Altitude sickness prevention and treatment can save lives – perhaps your own.
Q: How common is altitude sickness?
A: Discussing altitude sickness prevention, experts from the Stanford University School of Medicine suggest that 25 percent of high altitude travelers – those whose exploits take them above 6,000 or 8,000 feet – will experience the condition.
Q: Is it really possible to avoid altitude sickness altogether?
A: The same experts note that Ibuprofen has shown remarkable effectiveness with respect to altitude sickness prevention. While the study that gives rise to this optimism is admittedly small – just 86 volunteers participated in the double-blind experiment – only 43 percent of those taking the over-the-counter drug experienced symptoms of the condition. When compared to the 69 percent of placebo-taking participants, Ibuprofen does appear to give travelers a slight edge.
Q: How do I know that I am affected by a high altitude?
A: The student health center for the University of Michigan lists altitude sickness symptoms that include headaches, dizziness, fatigue, nausea and/or vomiting, some swelling of the hands or feet as well as insomnia. The severity of the symptoms varies.
Q: Is it really true that ignoring these symptoms can lead to death?
A: Yes, it is. Michigan researchers explain that the aforementioned symptoms are early warning signs. Usually, they can be managed with Ibuprofen, rest, acclimatization and proper hydration. Severe forms of the condition are known as “high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE).” Both conditions can be fatal. If Ibuprofen fails to relieve the headaches, fatigue is extreme and shortness of breath is present even when resting, it is time to call for descend and call for medical assistance.
Q: Is there a good altitude sickness treatment protocol?
A: If you were unable to avoid altitude sickness, follow the steps put forth by the Berkeley Astronomy Department. Drink Gatorade and water. Stay away from diuretic drinks like coffee. Keep a close eye on your potassium intake; eating bananas is a good idea. Princeton experts also note that becoming accustomed to the higher altitude and waiting out moderate symptoms for two to three days is really the only treatment – in addition to seeking out lower elevations.
Q: So, should I just fight through the symptoms and go on hiking?
A: No! Moderate symptoms that respond well to the previously mentioned altitude sickness remedies usually do not need medical attention. Nevertheless, the Princeton researchers warn that the first signs of moderate altitude sickness are a sign to wait for acclimatization.