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   Altitude Sickness for Trekkers

Advice on Altitude Sickness for Trekkers

The Cause of Altitude Sickness


More and more people are taking High altitude holidays. In South America crossing Andean passes often means you can reach heights above 4000 metres. Trekkers in the Himalayas near Nepa reach similar heights also and Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Mount Kenya are more than 5000 metres. Only healthy and trained people should attempt these expeditions, and if you are in any doubt you should take medical advice. Anyone can get acute mountain sickness during rapid ascent if you stay for more than twelve hours above 2500 metres. Altitude sickness affects all ages including children when the symptoms in them are more difficult to recognise.

The difference in altitude over a 24 hour period is the determining factor. From 3000 metres and higher, this risk increases when the altitude difference between encampments exceeds 300 metres.

High Altitude Definitions

High Altitude:
2400m to 3658m. (e.g. Cochabamba in Bolivia = 2550m. Bogota in Colombia = 2645m. Quito in Ecuador = 2879m. Cuzco in Peru = 3225m)

Very High Altitude:
3658m to 5500m. (La Paz in Bolivia = 3658m. Lhasa in Tibet, China = 3685m. Base camps of Everest in Nepal = 5500m)

Extreme Altitude:
5500m to 8848m (e.g. the summit of Mount Everest).

The Signs of Mountain Sickness

The early warning signs of acute mountain sickness usually include nausea, headache, anorexia and insomnia. If you get vertigo, vomiting, apathy, staggering and dyspnoea occur, immediate accompanied descent from the mountain is essential. If you don't descend immediately it may be fatal.

Prevention of Altitude Sickness

You must avoid ascents of greater than 300 metres every day if starting from above 3000 metres. If early signs of mountain sickness appear it is best to rest for a day at the same altitude. If these symptoms persist or increase you must descend at least 500 metres. Acetazolamide is sometimes used as prophylaxis for mountain sickness when a gradual ascent cannot be guaranteed. This should not be used as an alternative to a gradual ascent. This chemical acts on acid-base balance and stimulates respiration. It should be combined with a sensible fluid intake. You should not use this for young children.

Treatment of Altitude Sickness

Minor Symptoms
Simple analgesis (eg: paracetamol) for headaches. Sleeping pills should be avoided if possible. Seek medical advice.

Serious or Persistent Symptoms
Evacuation or descent; oxygen if available. Seek urgent medical advice but do not let this delay your descent - steroid drugs and/or nifedapine if necessary.

Useful Website
Information sheets are available to Doctors/Climbers/Trekkers contact the British Mountaineering Council.

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