ZocdocAnswersWhat causes altitude sickness in mountain climbers?

Question

What causes altitude sickness in mountain climbers?

I mountain climb frequently. I'm 28 and almost always get sick. How can I avoid this in the future?

Answer

Sorry to hear that you get sick every time that you climb. Altitude sickness (or Acute Mountain Sickness, aka AMS) is an illness that affects humans acutely when exposed (acutely) to the low partial pressures of oxygen at high altitude. It has been published that AMS tends to be more common in situations where the climber is acutely exposed to the low air pressure at or above 6,500 feet. It isn't clear exactly why some people are more susceptible to AMS than others. Especially since the general population of people that hike to this altitude have been training for some time, and are in very good physical condition. the primary symptoms that are experienced include: headache, fatigue or weakness, light-headedness, dizziness, malaise (generalized feeling poor), drowsiness, nosebleed, rapid pulse, and peripheral edema. As you can see, the symptoms are fairly non-specific, as dehydration and fatigue from climbing can also give you many of these symptoms. Unfortunately if left untreated (the primary treatment is decreasing elevation) the symptoms can progress to pulmonary edema (fluid leaking into the lungs) and cerebral edema (swelling/fluid on the brain) both of which can be fatal. Another term is High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). As far as answering your question about how to avoid this in the future...not as easy to answer. Since we don't know exactly why any particular person develops altitude sickness over another it is hard to give generalized advice about prevention. I would recommend to start out with a thorough history and physical examination from a primary care physician. Discuss your situation with them, and they can focus their exam appropriately. I hope this helps. Best of luck.

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