Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)
Every breath you take
By Charmian Christie
You don't have to climb Everest to get altitude sickness. About 75 percent of climbers who go beyond 10,000 feet will feel some sort of AMS, and continental America has plenty of mountains higher than that. While most people experience nausea, headaches and dizziness, severe cases can result in cerebral and pulmonary edemas or death.
If you or someone in your party begins to stagger, act disoriented, vomit, turn blue (cyanosis), gasp for breath or spit up blood, don't wait things out. Head downhill immediately and get medical help.
AMS is caused by a lack of oxygen in your blood. Because air pressure drops the higher you climb, the less oxygen is available with every breath. While most fit hikers won't feel the affects until they reach about 10,000 feet, there is no way of predicting who AMS will strike or when. It can hit at a few thousand feet above sea level, and even seasoned climbers can have different reactions on different treks.
Acclimatization is the most common "cure." Your body will adjust to the lower oxygen levels, but it takes time. To help your body adjust:
- Stop climbing as soon as you feel ill - even if it's a minor symptom.
- Wait until you feel better before resuming your climb.
- If you feel worse, return to the last lower elevation where you felt better and acclimatize again before resuming.
While there are no guarantees for preventing AMS, you can reduce your chances of getting altitude sickness and the severity of a spell if you:
- Start acclimatized. If you live at or near sea level and fly into a high elevation launch point, rest for a full day at the new elevation before starting your climb.
- Take it easy. Allow for plenty of rest stops when planning your itinerary.
- Take it slow. Once you reach 10,000 feet, slow your climb to 1,000 feet a day.
- Take Diamox - but only if your doctor says it's safe. This drug can help prevent AMS, but it's not a cure-all.
- Sleep at lower elevations. Climb during the day but camp out at lower elevations to speed recovery.
- Stay hydrated. Dehydration can make symptoms worse. Drink enough to keep your urine clear.