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How to Cope with Treks at Altitude

You’ll have to endure some tough conditions and will push your body to the limit, but trekking at altitude is usually a hugely rewarding experience. For treks at high altitude some extra precautions should be taken to prepare you for the risk of altitude sickness. It doesn’t matter how fit you are, or if you’ve ascended before without symptoms, altitude sickness can affect anyone.

What is Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness can develop in travellers trekking at altitude who ascend too quickly and fail to acclimatise properly. At altitude, the oxygen pressure in the air drops significantly, making it harder to take in enough oxygen when breathing. There are actually several types of altitude sickness, depending the severity of symptoms:

  • Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is the most common form
  • High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) is swelling of the brain caused by lack of oxygen and is what happens when AMS is left to progress, 10% of sufferers may develop this life-threatening illness
  • High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) is a build-up of fluid on the lungs and is not necessarily preceded by AMS but is a life-threatening condition

Consult with a Travel Health Professional Before Your Trek

Before you travel, it’s important that you consult with a Nomad travel health clinic or your GP about your upcoming trek. At Nomad, you’ll get a comprehensive consultation on all the risks you should be aware of and advice on how to prepare for your trip. Get up to date on vaccinations recommended for your destination to reduce the chance of you getting diseases that might ruin your trek if you fall ill. If you have complex medical conditions it is vital to discuss your trekking plans with your health specialist prior to booking your trip.

Prepare with Medication

Acetazolamide (Diamox) is a medication that help prevent the symptoms of altitude sickness and is taken before you start ascending and during your ascent. This is particularly helpful for treks like Kilimanjaro in Tanzania where treks often ascent too quickly to properly acclimatise. Your nearest Nomad clinic, travel clinic, or possibly your GP can prescribe Acetazolamide for treks at altitude. Even when taking acetazolamide, you should follow the advice for preventing acute mountain sickness and continue to look out for symptoms.

Prepare for minor accidents & illness with a suitable Medical Kit for your trek. The Ultimate Medical Kit has everything you’ll need to treat the injuries that are common amongst trekkers. Make sure you’ve got paracetamol and ibuprofen to treat headaches, which can be common as you ascend to altitude. Painkillers will only ease the pain but will not treat the cause of altitude sickness so you must be prepared to stay at your current altitude to allow acclimatization, or descend if symptoms are not getting better.

Preventing Altitude Sickness

The key to avoiding altitude sickness is proper acclimatisation. Take the ascent slowly and never sleep more than 300m higher than your previous night’s sleep. Give yourself a rest day every 3 days to recover and give yourself several days to acclimatise once you pass 3,000m above sea level.

Drink plenty of fluids, either carry enough for your trek or take a water purification kit if you’ll be filling up along the way. Just stick to water and avoid all alcohol during your trek as it can make acclimatisation more difficult. Forget about smoking while you ascend, you don’t want to do anything to worsen your lung function during this time.

If you have decided to take acetazolamide (Diamox), follow the instructions given and start taking the medication before you begin your ascent. It is also recommended to do a 2-day trial of the medication before you travel so please allow time to do this.

Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

The symptoms of altitude sickness are often described as being like a bad hangover; the most commonly experienced symptoms are:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Shortness of breath

The symptoms of altitude sickness are a result of your body struggling to cope with reduced oxygen levels. It is vital to maintain an awareness of how you are feeling. Be honest and tell your group leader if you are feeling unwell. It is also important to keep an eye on each other in a group as someone may start to stumble more or seem confused without being aware of it themselves. Ignoring symptoms of altitude sickness can be very dangerous. If your body is not coping at your current altitude it will be worse higher up. If symptoms worsen you can develop swelling of the brain (HACE) or a build-up of fluid on the lungs (HAPE), these require urgent treatment and likely medical evacuation off the mountain. If evacuation is not possible due to weather conditions etc. they can be fatal. Don’t let symptoms get that bad!

Treating Altitude Sickness

If you think you have symptoms of altitude sickness let your trek companions know that you’re not feeling well. Stop where you are to rest and drink plenty of water. Make camp at your current altitude and don’t go higher for 24-48 hours to see if symptoms lessen. If you have a headache, take ibuprofen or paracetamol. Avoid strenuous exercise and don’t have any alcohol & cigarettes. If you don’t feel better after 24 hours resting, descend by at least 500m and continue to rest and monitor symptoms. Only attempt to continue the ascent if you feel completely recovered. If you start don’t improve or symptoms worsen after descending, seek medical help immediately. Make sure your travel insurance covers your trek so that you can be airlifted to a medical centre if very severe forms of altitude sickness overcome you and you cannot safely descend.

This is a guest post by Nomad, the travel clinic and essential travel equipment store

Click here to learn more about staying healthy on your Dragoman trip