Acute mountain sickness

Acute mountain sickness involves various symptoms that tend to develop when an individual travels to areas of high altitude. In most cases, those who experience altitude illness notice symptoms upon reaching 8,000 feet. Even those who are physically fit can end up with acute mountain sickness if not gradually adjusting the body to the altitude with proper acclimatization. Take note that acclimatization is a process where the body steadily adapts to a higher altitude. The process usually takes several days but depends on the altitude and the overall health of the individual. In most circumstances, it might take weeks to fully acclimatize.

Altitude acclimatization

Even though the concentration of oxygen is the same at sea level and at high altitudes, when an individual moves to an area with higher altitude, the availability of oxygen molecules for each breath reduces due to the a drop in the barometric pressure.

The best way to obtain adequate oxygen for activity is to breathe more or adjust to having reduced oxygen. Even with rapid breathing, it is hard to obtain enough oxygen to the muscles and the individual easily tires. While at areas in high altitude, many will notice rapid heart rate and breathing, increased urination, shortness of breath during exertion and difficulty sleeping.


While at areas in high altitude, many will notice rapid heart rate and breathing, increased urination, shortness of breath during exertion and difficulty sleeping.

When travelling to areas of high altitude, the body undergoes complex changes in the fluid balance during acclimatization. One of these changes is an increase in the number of red blood cells to transport oxygen. In addition, there is frequent urination as well.

When trouble starts

The issue with acute mountain sickness starts once acclimatization is not in pace with the ascent to high altitude. Take note that this often occurs once the individual ascends too quickly or moves from sea level to high altitude in a day.

How to prevent acute mountain sickness

The ideal way to prevent acute mountain sickness is to stick with a slow, gradual ascent to areas of high altitude and allow the body to acclimatize. The rates of acclimation are not the same for everybody. Due to this, it can be difficult to determine the length of time required. Luckily, there are general guidelines that you should be familiar with.

  • Do not fly directly into high altitude. It is recommended to start at or below 10,000 feet and ascend gradually.
  • The individual should climb high and sleep low. This is the golden rule for climbers. Once 10,000 feet is reached, avoid increasing the sleeping elevation more than 1,000 feet per night.
  • For every 3,000 feet that the individual ascends, it is advised to spend two nights at the same elevation.
  • Stick with a high carbohydrate diet while at high altitudes.
  • Avoid any alcoholic beverages and stay properly hydrated. Take note that acclimatization often results to fluid loss and dehydration.

Indications of acute mountain sickness

Once 8,000 feet or more is reached, the usual symptoms of altitude illness that can manifest include the following.

  • Headache (the initial warning sign)
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Appetite loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weakness or fatigue

Most of these symptoms are typically worse at night time. In most individuals, the symptoms do not disrupt with daytime activity and subside in a matter of days as the individual is acclimatized.


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