Getting High: beware of Acute Altitude Sickness

The skiing season is about to start, and many of our readers may be preparing for a trip to slopes above 7000 feet (2500 m). In order to avoid altitude sickness that can spoil the vacation and even cause death, read our tips!

Image Credit: Khomulo Anna /

What is AMS

Acute mountain sickness (AMS) is a set of symptoms experienced by many people at high altitudes. Most people “feel the altitude” above 3000 meters, but some get really sick. The main symptoms include:

  1. Headache
  2. Shortness of breath when walking or climbing
  3. Nausea
  4. Fatigue
  5. Difficulty sleeping (more on symptoms here )

People who are particularly sensitive, or those who climb very high, can develop more serious conditions that require urgent medical help and can lead to death:

  • Pulmonary edema (accumulation of fluid in the lungs) – expressed in shortness of breath even while resting and a nasty cough;
  • Cerebral edema, or swelling of the brain – its symptoms are confusion, disorientation, violent emotions, inability to walk straight.

If left untreated, severe AMS leads to death – in fact, it is the direct cause of 10% deaths among climbers on Mount Everest. But even skiers in Colorado and in the Alps often suffer from it – therefore, come prepared!

Mysterious causes

The reason for AMS is clear: at high altitude, there are much fewer gas molecules per cubic meter of air and thus the pressure is lower. However, nobody knows for sure why some people get AMS and some don’t. Your age and fitness level has nothing to do with it (Olymptic athletes get it, too), but genetics apparently does (see this study, for example ). Tibetans and Andean peoples have evolutionary adaptations to altitude – they have larger lungs and hearts, and their red blood cells carry more oxygen. But those living near sea level may also be better adapted thanks to their genes.

Apart from individual susceptibility, what matters most is how fast you go up. If you fly to a high-altitude city, your chances of developing AMS are much higher than if you drive or take a train. Many of those flying into Lhasa or La Paz, for example (both above 3600 m), get a headache, dizziness, or extreme fatigue in just a few hours.

Preventing and treating AMS – Our tips

  1. Try not to fly into a city located above 3000 m above sea level;
  2. Rest: do not plan any intense activity for the first day – just walk around and have a good night’s sleep;
  3. Acclimatize: in a day or two, your body will adjust naturally: you will breathe faster and extract oxygen more efficiently. Give your body time.
  4. Keep hydrated: it is essential to drink at least 2 liters of water a day at high altitudes;
  5. Rodiola rhosea – this Asia plant is the key ingredient of most Tibetan cures for altitude sickness. Start taking it 3 days before you go up and continue while you are in the mountains; it can be easily bought online.
  6. Eat lots of carbs, especially when trekking: don’t waste your backpack space on fresh fruit – stock up on chocolate bars and dried fruit instead.
  7. Drugs – diamox is often taken to relieve the symptoms, and it should be given urgently to those who may be suffering from pulmonary and cerebral edema (more on treating the edema );
  8. Go down: if you cannot sleep, get nausea and vomiting, develop a severe headache or a cough, you must go down at once to 2000-2500 meters. After a couple of days of acclimatization, you can try ascending again.

Hiking, skiing, and climbing in the mountains can be a great joy and leave fantastic memories that will last you a lifetime. However, AMS can spoil the whole trip, incapacitating a person for days. It’s better to come prepared: climb slow, acclimatize, rest, drink water, and descend if you have to. Remember: AMS can be worse than nasty – it can kill you.

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