You may think you’re as fit as a fiddle when it comes to having fun in the great outdoors, but once you get above around 8,000 feet in above sea level, your body knows something is wrong. You start breathing heavily, the ground spinning, your lungs stinging as they work in overdrive to pump enough air in and out of your lungs. No matter how much fresh mountain air you gulp in, you can’t seem to catch your breath. This is what’s known as altitude sickness.
Altitude sickness comes in many forms with varying degrees of intensity. It is most commonly known to cause headaches, dizziness, and nausea for those who are not accustomed to the thin air they are breathing in. If symptoms are mild and you are only at 8,000 feet, this is called acute mountain sickness (AMS).
Air pressure gets lower as you climb higher in altitude and the air has less oxygen in it the further up you go. This oxygen deprivation is known as hypoxia. Earth’s gravity pulls oxygen to its surface, so the further you climb, the harder it will be to breathe.
The chest starts to heave as the oxygen becomes less and less available and the lungs will attempt to pull in more air to account for the lack thereof. Though, it’s not just your respiratory system that starts to struggle.
The cardiovascular system is also feeling the heat as it needs the air pressure to be higher outside the body than it is in the lungs in order to breathe easily. Since the air is much thinner at higher altitudes, it becomes more difficult for the lungs to pull in air and also for the veins to send oxygen throughout the body.
Preventing Altitude Sickness
The key to preventing altitude sickness is time. To properly acclimatize to the change in altitude, your body may need anywhere from half an hour to a whole day to get used to the new air pressure. For areas above 16,000 feet, it can sometimes take over a week for the body to acclimatize comfortably, but not a lot of people venture to such great heights!
To put this into perspective, Mount Everest is 29,000 feet high, and climbers are required to bring supplemental oxygen with them to survive. There is normally an average of 20% oxygen present in the air at sea level, but on Everest, only 7% oxygen remains in the air. Yikes! On an airplane, you are flying at 23,000 feet in the sky, so the cabin pressure must be adjusted to make passengers feel like they are breathing at ground level.
Be sure to treat altitude sickness the minute you start feeling unwell. If left untreated for too long, AMS can lead to complicated and potentially fatal forms of altitude sickness. High-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or high altitude cerebral edema (HAPE) can occur, which are characterized by excess fluid on the lungs or brain, respectively.
These extreme cases of altitude sickness can be treated by immediately descending to a more tolerable altitude level. Acetazolamide (diamox) is the only known drug to combat altitude sickness, should be prescribed by your doctor, and taken a few days before departure.
Know the Risks
Before traveling somewhere with a higher altitude, be sure to come prepared and know the risks. Do your best to avoid exerting yourself through strenuous exercise, ensure that you’re drinking enough water, and if you can, head to a more adequate altitude. Of course, if you already have respiratory issues you should not travel or relocate to places with less oxygen in the air. Be kind to your lungs and they will serve you well for years to come.
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