How Getting Too High Makes You Sick

Mt Whitney looms at 14,505 feet above sea level. That makes it the tallest mountain in the continental United States! Six of my friends and I will be summiting in less than a month. One of the biggest concerns we have had is getting used to the high altitude. Besides advice to get there early and spend a few days at high elevation, we don’t really know what we are dealing with.

Since we are practically experts at how to prepare for this (acclimating), I’m doing some research on the symptoms of altitude sickness (also known as mountain sickness).

Altitude sickness is the body’s coping method for handling not that much less oxygen, but less oxygen. A lot of people experience mild symptoms, but others have experienced more distressing symptoms that require medical attention. Symptoms typically start within 12-24 hours of getting above 8,000 feet. What are the symptoms? Thanks for asking. 😉

 

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of coordination

 

If more than one symptom is prevalent than its safe to assume altitude sickness. Symptoms that are characteristic of a bad case of altitude sickness are more concerning. For example, the person may vomit or not act like themselves. They may make poor choices. Those are very concerning things to notice. Having a mild headache is nbd. Having a splitting headache is concerning. Treat concerning symptoms like they are concerning. 

Anyone is at risk for altitude sickness. The fit, the not fit, the young, and the old. Most websites I visited said that the risk was the same for everyone. Web MD said that younger people have a higher risk than older people. As my aunt that is coming with me likes to bring up, she is really old. 😉 Guess what aunt, according to one website that gives you an advantage!  

 

Case study 1

Three years ago I was camping at approximately 12,400 feet above sea level next to Gannett Peak in the Wind Rivers. As soon as camp was set up, I promptly fell asleep as did my tentmate. A campmate woke us up for dinner. I rolled out my sleeping bag. The same campmate filled my mess kit full of soup even though I wasn’t too hungry (this was after hiking 10 miles to get to camp). After the first bowl of soup he then filled a second full bowl of soup. I wasn’t hungry, but eating this soup did not make me feel full. I did recognize that maybe I was more hungry than I felt. Since it was wonderfully raining I went back to my tent and fell back asleep for the rest of the night.

Did I show enough symptoms to concern my campmates?

 

Case study 2

A few weekends ago my husband and I were hiking Mount Nebo. The trail starts near 9,270 feet elevation and ends at 11,928 feet elevation. After 4 hours of hiking my husband had a headache. He took some ibuprofen, drank more water, and kept on trucking. The trail was very steep, and in the steep portions he would be short of breath. After a short rest he would catch his breath and be ready to go again.  

Did he show enough symptoms that I should be concerned?

 

Sources

Davis, C. P.; Altitude Sickness (Mountain Sickness), EMedicine Health, Accessed on Aug 9, 2018,       https://www.emedicinehealth.com/mountain_sickness/article_em.htm#do_i_need_to_follow-up_with_a_doctor_after_an_episode_of_altitude_sickness

Cleavland Clinic Foundation, 2017, Altitude Sickness, Accessed Aug 9, 2018, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15111-altitude-sickness

WebMD, Altitude Sickness: What to Know, Accessed Aug 9, 2018, https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/altitude-sickness#2

 


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