Altitude sickness is the most common illness for climbers and mountaineers in higher areas. There are three different types of altitude sickness: acute altitude sickness or also called acute mountain sickness (AMT), high altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPE) and high altitude cerebral oedema (HACE). The next couple of passages will give you an idea what these illnesses are, why you get them and how to prevent them.
Acute altitude sickness (AMT)
Acute altitude sickness (or acute mountain sickness) can occur above 2.500 m / 8.200 ft. Only very few people experience this illness below this altitude. It occurs due to the change of atmospheric pressure, which contains less oxygen in the air. Your body normally responds with a faster heartbeat and stronger breathing.
The first symptom of altitude sickness is, normally, headache. But other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, lethargy and dizziness can appear also. A lot of people explain it like having a hangover.
High altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPE)
At HAPE, your lungs will build up a fluid, which prevents the air spaces in your lung from opening. This way your body will have even less oxygen available. It usually develops after 2 or 3 days in higher altitudes and breathlessness as well as coughing are the most common symptoms. Even at rest you will be breathless and have a faster heart rate. Furthermore, your lips can turn blue and your body temperature rises.
Scientists don’t exactly know why HAPE affects some people more than others. Nevertheless, the risk is higher at fast ascents and vigorous exercises. Furthermore, it is believed that people with chest infections before the ascent are more likely to be affected.
For amateurs the only treatment is a fast and immediate descent to lower altitudes. This way your body can receive more oxygen, as there is more oxygen in the air. Be careful, never descent alone! There are also some drugs which can help but they should only be used under the advice of experienced doctors.
High altitude cerebral oedema (HACE)
HACE is the most dangerous altitude sickness and can be life-threatening. HACE will build up a fluid in the brain and is a serve form of acute mountain sickness. Headache, vomiting and lethargy are stronger, and this can lead to unsteadiness, confusion, drowsiness and coma. People with HACE find it difficult to walk heel-and-toe in a straight line and behave irrationally or bizarre.
Again, climbing too fast to higher altitudes is the reason to get HACE. It mainly occurs when climbers ignore the symptoms of acute mountain sickness and keep on climbing to higher altitudes instead of descending.
If you think you have HACE you should immediately descent, if available use some oxygen and seek medical attention right away.
In general, you can never totally prevent altitude sickness. Nevertheless, with a slow ascent and enough acclimatization the risk is lower. Scientist say mountaineers shouldn’t climb more than 300-500 m / 985-1640 ft per day and after every 1.000 m / 3280 ft in elevation gain you should plan and schedule one or two days of rest. Before ascending a high-altitude mountain, you should prepare yourself with lower hikes with a descent to lower altitudes in order to acclimatize. Check out our acclimatization tours before climbing or visit one of Ecuador’s Top Three Lagoons. Furthermore, make sure to drink enough water. In higher altitudes your body needs more water than in lower altitudes. For more advice on how to prevent altitude sickness, check out the below info sheet. It contains very helpful information. ASEGUIM, Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Environment created this summary as a help for mountaineers visiting Ecuador.