Altitude Mountain sickness or AMS as it is commonly known can occur when you reach a high altitude place by traveling too quickly.
At high altitudes above 8000 feet, the air is thinner and there is less oxygen in the same volume of air. This makes breathing difficult as you aren’t able to inhale as much oxygen as you would at low altitudes.
Altitude Mountain sickness can at times become a serious medical condition and if ignored can be fatal.
It is not dependent on the age or sex of an individual and can happen to anyone. It cannot be predicted and if you have traveled to a high altitude place and haven’t had it, it doesn’t mean you won’t develop it on another trip.
Every time I visited Ladakh or did high altitude treks AMS was of great concern for me.
Based on my past experiences I am sharing a few good practices which you can follow to avoid the probability of AMS hitting you.
With these practices, you will reduce the probability of AMS as so far there is no sure way or foolproof way of preventing altitude sickness. I hope you find them worth it.
1. Work on your fitness
At high altitudes, your body is overworked due to the intake of less oxygen. For it to function well with lesser oxygen you need to increase your cardiovascular endurance.
Cardiovascular endurance is the ability of your lungs, heart and blood vessels to deliver the required oxygen to your body. So with higher cardiovascular endurance, you have a higher probability of acclimatizing faster to high altitude.
It’s usually the unfit people with lesser physical endurance who are more prone to AMS.
Start on your fitness at least 1 month before the trip.
DO NOT hurry your itinerary.
Always give enough time in your itinerary to acclimatize at high altitudes. We usually make our travel plans sitting in the comforts of our home or office and try to reduce the number of days of our trip. We don’t anticipate that the actual situation on reaching the location could be completely different at high altitudes. Understand that if you hurry your itinerary you may end spoiling the entire trip with loss of money and time.
So plan your itinerary such that you give your body enough time to acclimatize. This is the first and most effective way to avoid altitude sickness.
Whenever I plan for Ladakh treks I give at least 3 days to acclimatize. These three days I simply rest at Leh without too much exertion or travel to distant places.
While making your trek or travel itinerary keep in mind that you should NOT increase your sleeping altitude by more than 1,500 ft every day.
If you gain more than 1500 feet than it makes you more susceptible to altitude sickness.
2. Drink 4 liters of water every day
Keeping your body well hydrated helps your body to function well t high altitudes. Water increases the oxygen level in your bloodstream. Drink at least 4 liters of water every day on a high altitude trip. I practice drinking 4 liters water a few days before the trip has started.
Don’t drink lots of water at one go or you will put stress on your kidneys. Drink a glass of water (250ml) every half an hour. Drinking consistently with a gap of 30 minutes will help you to consume 16 glasses of water (4 Litres) in 8 hours during the day.
Avoid drinking near bedtime so that you don’t have to get up to pee in the middle of the night
You may hydrate not only with water but also with liquids in other forms like soups and green tea.
Note: Strictly avoid Alcohol and Smoking as both cause dehydration and that’s the last thing you need at high altitudes!!
3. Eat Carbs
Have small meals containing easy to digest carbs. Avoid Fats and Proteins. A high-carbohydrate diet can reduce the onset of Acute Mountain Sickness or (AMS) and improve your physical performance. A low-carbohydrate diet can result in low blood sugar. Fats and Protein are not digested well at high altitudes and can worsen the symptoms of AMS.
Take Diamox: A preventive course of Diamox is most advisable to prevent AMS.
Trekkers and mountaineers all over the world use Diamox (a medicine called Acetazolamide) to acclimatize faster at high altitudes.
Diamox helps you acclimatize faster by increasing your breathing rate.
Dosage: Have 125 mg (half a tablet) every 12 hours. It is suggested to start the dosage 2 days prior to your travel. Increase it to 250 mg (full tablet) every 12 hours if the symptoms increase after 24 hours of your arrival at high altitude. Continue the dosage until you complete the travel and reach home.
Don’t stop the Diamox course in between.
Side effects: There are negligible side effects of taking Diamox. You feel a numbness/tingling sensation in your hands, face, and feet. You urinate more often (an indication that the medicine is doing its job).
While Diamox reduces the chances of AMS hitting you, it isn’t guaranteed that you won’t have AMS.
Dress up well and keep yourself warm: Avoid exposing your body to the cold weather when you are at high altitudes. Dress in layers and have your head and ears covered with a woolen cap especially before sundown.
Be Alert on the Symptoms of altitude sickness
The initial symptoms of AMS are similar to those of a mild Migraine or Stomach upset.
The symptoms include:
- nausea and vomiting
- loss of appetite
- shortness of breath
The symptoms are usually worse when you are lying down and are more aggravated at night when you are sleeping.
Treating altitude sickness
If you think you have altitude sickness:
- stop and rest where you are
- don’t go any higher for at least 24-48 hours
- if you have a headache, take ibuprofen or paracetamol
- make sure you reach out for a glass of water immediately
- avoid alcohol
- don’t smoke
- avoid exercise
Tell your travel companions how you feel, even if your symptoms are mild.
I have noticed that people generally like to keep their feelings of being uncomfortable with themselves. Do not do that. Always share what you feel with the people accompanying you. Don’t wait for things to go out of hand before you tell them anything.
Even the slightest feeling of Headache or Nausea should be immediately reported to your companions.– there’s a danger your judgment could be clouded.
See a doctor if your symptoms don’t improve or get worse.
You can continue going up at higher altitudes with care once you feel fully recovered.
If you don’t feel any better after 24 hours, you should go down by at least 1,500 feet.