Millions of people go to the mountains for backpacking, skiing, mountain climbing and other activities every year. If you’re planning a trip to altitudes over 8,000 feet, talk with your doctor about high-altitude illness (also called mountain sickness or altitude sickness).
The higher you climb above sea level, the less oxygen there is in the air. The oxygen level becomes very low at altitudes above 8,000 feet. This causes problems for people who normally live at lower altitudes because their bodies aren’t used to working on so little oxygen. If you stay at a high altitude for a long time, your body gets used to the low oxygen level, and you don’t get sick from it.
Just yesterday, May 19, an amateur Chinese mountaineer died on the return trip after reaching the peak of Mount Everest. Wu Wenhong, from east China’s Jiangsu Province was pronounced dead at around 4 a.m. at 8,750 meters. The total height of the highest mountain on earth is about 8,848 meters above sea level.
However, some sources suggests that the best treatment for altitude sickness is by going down to a lower altitude right away unless the symptoms are mild in which case you can stay at that altitude and let your body adjust. Rest is very important as you let your body adjust to the altitude.
If you have severe symptoms, go down 1,500 to 2,000 feet right away to see if your symptoms get better. Keep going down until your symptoms go away completely.
Waiting for the rescuers to come may not be the best thing the Chinese climbers did to save Wu’s life but the weather was extremely harsh and the path to descend was difficult.
How can I prevent high-altitude illness?
You can do 2 important things to prevent high-altitude illness:
- Take your time traveling to higher altitudes. When you travel to a high altitude, your body will begin adjusting right away to the lower amount of oxygen in the air, but it takes several days for your body to adjust completely. If you’re healthy, you can probably safely go from sea level to an altitude of 8,000 feet in a few days. But when you reach an altitude above 8,000 feet, don’t go up faster than 1,000 feet per day. The closer you live to sea level, the more time your body will need to get used to a high altitude. Plan your trip so your body has time to get used to the high altitude before you start your physical activity.
- Sleep at an altitude that is lower than the altitude you are at during the day. For example, if you ski at an elevation of 10,000 feet during the day, sleep the night before and the night after at an elevation of 8,500 feet.
Is it safe to go to a high altitude if I have a chronic illness like heart disease or lung disease?
It depends on the type and severity of chronic illness you have. Most people who have a chronic illness, such as heart or lung disease, can safely spend time at a high altitude if their disease is under control. People who have coronary artery disease, mild emphysema or high blood pressure aren’t at greater risk of high-altitude illness than people who don’t have these diseases. They also don’t risk making their disease worse by traveling to a high altitude. In addition, being overweight does not increase the risk of getting high-altitude illness.
Some diseases make going to a high altitude very dangerous. People who have sickle cell anemia shouldn’t go to a high altitude. A high altitude is also dangerous for people who have severe lung disease, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or severe emphysema, and for people who have severe heart disease. If you have a chronic disease, ask your doctor if it’s safe for you to travel to a high altitude.
Check out the view from the summit of Mt. Everest: