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How Altitude Sickness Works

Advanced Treatment

Athlete Brent Sherwin is treated inside a hyperbaric during training at Belmore Sports Ground, Sydney, Australia, in 2001. Portable hyperbaric chambers or gamow bags can be used to treat altitude sickness.
Athlete Brent Sherwin is treated inside a hyperbaric during training at Belmore Sports Ground, Sydney, Australia, in 2001. Portable hyperbaric chambers or gamow bags can be used to treat altitude sickness.
Chris McGrath/ALLSPORT/Getty Images

High altitude can wreak havoc on our bodies -- and you can only do so much to prevent it. Once you've got altitude sickness, you've got to treat it. Here's how.

While medications can alleviate symptoms of mild or moderate Acute Mountain Sickness (such as headaches), they aren't cures. Descent or acclimatization is the only cure for AMS. Pure oxygen reduces the effects of altitude sickness, though many climbers report that ginkgo biloba prevents or alleviates symptoms of altitude sickness. Ginkgo has proven an ineffective treatment in recent tests, however [source: Dietz].


There are three important things to remember about altitude sickness:

  1. If you have symptoms of altitude sickness -- even if you're the only member of the party feeling afflicted -- you should assume that you are, indeed, sick.
  2. Never ascend to a new altitude to sleep if you have symptoms (remember: "climb high, sleep low").
  3. If you remain at the same altitude and your symptoms worsen, descend as soon as possible.

Anyone with High Altitude Pulmonary Edema should immediately descend. If the case is severe, he or she may need to be carried down or airlifted. If immediate descent isn't possible (due to inclement weather, for instance), there are some options to help treat the condition. You can use pressurized oxygen or a portable hyperbaric chamber to help restore breathing. Someone afflicted with HAPE should rest as much as possible. Since lying flat will cause discomfort, you should elevate one end of his or her sleeping bag or bedroll.

Some drugs that may help are nifedipine and frusemide. Nifedipine is a blood pressure medication that lessens the pressure in the pulmonary artery that causes HAPE, thus improving oxygenation. Its use will result in a lower blood pressure, so one should keep this in mind and not stand up too quickly after it has been administered. It has been used to prevent HAPE in those who have a previous history with this condition [source: Rees].

Frusemide may help remove excess fluid from the lungs, but it can have serious side effects in those who are dehydrated.

Like HAPE, a person with High Altitude Cerebral Edema needs to descend immediately and seek medical help. Alternate courses of action can be taken to alleviate the conditions and prevent HACE from worsening.

The afflicted party can take Dexamethasone, which reverses swelling, including brain swelling. Though it can be used in a preventative manner, Dexamethasone is a powerful drug that may cause serious side effects. But in extreme conditions, it can save the life of someone suffering from HACE -- especially if that person has to stay put through the night before descending. It is reputed to revive people who have fallen into a coma from HACE. You can also provide oxygen to the HACE patient and put him or her into a portable hyperbaric chamber.

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­ Sources­

  • American Journal of Medicine. "Evidence of Brain Damage after High-altitude Climbing by Means of Magnetic Resonance Imaging." Volume 119, Issue 2, February 2006, Pages 168.e1-168.e6. Nicolás Fayed, Pedro J. Modrego and Humberto Morales.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Health Information for International Travel 2008." 18 June 2007. (11 April 2008).
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  • Department of Atmospheric Sciences (DAS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Atmospheric pressure." (11 April 2008).
  • Dietz, Thomas E. "An Altitude Tutorial." International Society for Mountain Medicine. 26 Jan. 2006. (11 April 2008).
  • "Edema." Mayo 11 October 2007. (16 April 2008).
  • Harris, James. "Home Field: Then & Now," Denver Magazine, 1 April 2008. (11 April 2008).
  • National Museum of the USAF. "Col. Joseph Kittinger, Jr." (11 April 2008).
  • Nova Online. "How the body uses O2." November 2000. (11 April 2008).
  • Rees, Peter. "High Altitude Trekking & Climbing." 2005. (11 April 2008).
  • Shlim, David. "High Altitude Medical Advice for Travelers." 7 May 1997. (11April 2008). CIWEC Travel Medicine Center.
  • West, John B. "High Altitude Medicine & Biology. 1 December 2002, 3(4): 401-407.