Nepal is worldwide famous for its trekking routes at high elevations, peaking with Everest, the top of the world at 8,848 metres of altitude. Hiking around the magnificent landscape of the Himalayas is very rewarding but has its downsides and altitude sickness is one of them. Understanding how to prevent altitude sickness is a must!
If trekking to 3000 metres is straight forward, one cannot say the same thing concerning the highest touching points of various trekking routes. Most of them will reach dramatic mountain passes like Everest Base Camp Trek – 5,600m altitude, Cho La – 5,420m, Makalu Base Camp and Sherpani Col – 6,145m, The Renjo La – 5,345m, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, The Thorong La 5,416m, Dhaulagiri Circuit etc.
Trekking in Nepal is a highly desired adventure and simultaneously a demanding challenge. Hiking at top elevations, particularly above 3,000 metres of altitude is far from being a piece of cake and besides your physical condition the next element that might ruin your trip is altitude sickness. Here we will go into details about how you can prevent altitude sickness, the various symptoms and treatments that are available so that you can be fully prepared for trekking in Nepal.
What Is Altitude Sickness?
Also named “mountain sickness”, altitude sickness refers to a set of symptoms that affects climbers at high altitude usually after 3,000 metres of altitude if they advance too fast. Many trekkers will be hit by altitude sickness, but the symptoms might be very different for each person. The same person might experience different altitude sickness symptoms in different regions at high altitude.
Altitude sickness has three versions:
Acute Mountain Sickness – AMS is the most common and mildest form of altitude sickness. Its symptoms might be headaches, muscle aches, nauseas, hangover – dizziness.
High Altitude Pulmonary Edema – HAPE is a more harsh form and means an accumulation of fluid in the lungs. This is really dangerous.
High Altitude Cerebral Edema – HACE means an accumulation of fluid inside the brain because of oxygen deficiency and is the most severe. This form endangers your life and needs immediate medical intervention.
Why Does Altitude Sickness Appear?
It appears because the higher you go up in the mountains the air pressure drops and consequently the level of oxygen decreases.
People that live at high altitude or moderate to high-altitude levels are used to low levels of oxygen. But travelers that arrive in Nepal at higher altitudes than they are accustomed to, these people will need to adapt to this new pressure.
Who Suffers From Altitude Sickness?
Virtually anyone can be hit by altitude sickness, no matter the age, the state of health or physical endurance. Being a sporty person might increase your chances of having altitude sickness.
Chances of being hit by altitude sickness depends on things such as the altitude you reach, how fast you arrive at high elevations, the altitude where you rest and sleep, your age – young people have higher chances of being hit, the altitude where you live and even your genetics.
Altitude Sickness Symptoms
They appear most often in an interval of 12-24 hours after arriving at high elevations, usually after 3,000 metres of elevation.
Mild form of altitude sickness has symptoms such as:
- Fatigue and low levels of energy
- Loss of appetite
- Shortness of breath
And tend to disappear in a day or two after acclimatization.
If you start to feel worse instead of seeing improvements and if the symptoms do not react to common medication such as Diamox tablets, it means you have a moderate form of altitude sickness. You will then start to experience more fatigue and shortness of breath, trouble walking and less coordination of movements and severe headaches that do not react to medication.
Severe forms of mountain sickness like HAPE or HACE, have altitude sickness symptoms like inability of walking, confusion, hallucinations, shortness of breath even when resting, cough or coma. If you reach this stage, we will take immediate measures for you to be transported to a hospital without delay.
Source: Global Traveler
How to prevent altitude sickness?
The first rule to prevent altitude sickness is via acclimatization. In other words you should help your body to gradually accommodate to the change in oxygen levels as you trek to higher altitudes.
Advancing slowly towards heights will help your lungs adapt to new conditions.
Basic rules of proper acclimatization:
- Your trip should start at an elevation of under 3,000 metres. If you drive or fly at an elevation that surpasses 3,000 metres, it’s recommended to stop for at least a day at a lower elevation, before going forward.
- Reserve a day of rest for acclimatisation at high altitudes before climbing above 3,000 metres.
- Avoid intense physical activity in the first 24 hours at high altitude.
- After 3,000 metres of altitude you must only advance in increments with 300-500 metres a day. For every 1,000 metres added in altitude, stay at least a day at the respective altitude, or rest a day after 3-4 trekking days to properly acclimatise.
- If you trek for more than 300 metres in altitude a day, you should return and sleep at lower levels.
- Stay hydrated, drink 3-4 liters of water daily and ensure you consume enough carbohydrates.
- Avoid alcohol, tobacco and medicines that might alter your physical/mental state, like sleeping pills.
- If you notice signs of altitude sickness symptoms, you must descend immediately to a lower altitude.
Take with you a first aid kit that contains medicines to help you in case of altitude sickness:
- Paracetamol or ibuprofen for headaches.
- High altitude sickness medicines like acetazolamide or Diamox.
- Medication for nausea, like promethazine.
It might be a good idea to start taking altitude sickness medication a couple of days before starting and during your ascension up the mountain.
Altitude Sickness Treatment
It’s important to know the altitude sickness symptoms so you can quickly take the necessary measures. When you notice altitude sickness symptoms, you should stop and rest in that area, do not advance higher for the next two days, take medicines to alleviate symptoms, stay hydrated and eat well.
The next thing to do after observing the symptoms is to descend to a lower elevation the soonest time that is possible.
If you suffer even further severe symptoms, you should be taken to lower elevations without delay – it must be under 1,200 metres. And you must receive medical attention immediately. You might need medication and supplementary oxygen while descending to lower elevations.
Do not try to retake your trail unless your symptoms disappear completely.
Remember altitude sickness can embrace various forms, each person has different symptoms. Preparing yourself in advance might prevent most of these symptoms to manifest. Schedule a complete medical checking several months before your ascension at high altitude, consult a specialized practitioner concerning your personal needs when at high altitude. Follow the instructions received, inform yourself and know what to do in case of altitude sickness symptoms.
On all of our organised trekking tours, health and safety is a huge priority to us and our highly qualified trekking guides are trained to spot the signs of altitude sickness early on and they will take all of the above necessary steps in order to prevent any emergencies and provide you with the best possible safety whilst trekking at the mountains.