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What is Acute Mountain Sickness?

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  • Written By: Christina Edwards
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 29 March 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2018
    Conjecture Corporation
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Acute mountain sickness often afflicts people traveling to higher altitudes. It is also known by such names as hypobaropathy, soroche, altitude illness, and altitude sickness. Because there is less oxygen in air at high altitudes, this illness will usually cause a number of symptoms until the person becomes acclimated. Ignoring symptoms of acute mountain sickness and continuing to climb is not advisable, as it can lead to much more serious, life-threatening conditions.

Many mountain climbing experts compare the symptoms of acute mountain sickness to those of a horrible hangover. The most common symptom is a headache. Stomach problems such as nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite can also occur. Shortness of breath and dizziness are not uncommon, and a person's heart may also start racing.

These symptoms generally present themselves within ten hours of a rapid descent. Different people, however, are effected differently. For example, some may be affected sooner than ten hours or some may be affected later.

While most individuals who develop acute mountain sickness do so at around 8,000 feet (2,400 meters) or higher, others may develop symptoms much higher or lower. Traveling to a lower altitude will usually make the symptoms disappear. If a person does not descend, though, the symptoms will generally go away within a day or two, as long as he does not climb any higher.

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When the obvious symptoms of acute mountain sickness are ignored and a person climbs higher, he is at serious risk of developing two other conditions. High altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) are serious conditions that can affect a small percentage of individuals who climb to high altitudes, often around 10,000 feet (3,000 meters). If not treated, both of these conditions can prove fatal.

HAPE occurs when fluids start to build up in a person's lungs at high altitudes. This will then prevent the tiny air spaces in the lungs from expanding, which results in less oxygen being absorbed into the blood. Along with the other symptoms of acute mountain sickness, a person with HAPE will also typically develop a cough. With this cough, there will often be a light pink frothy discharge from the lungs, fever, and possibly blue lips.

Occurring in even fewer people than HAPE, HACE happens when there is a fluid build-up on the brain. Symptoms often include headache, vision problems, bladder problems, and bowel problems. Other symptoms, such as confusion, paralysis, and coordination problems are also quite common. If an individual who has quickly gone to a high altitude starts to develop any of the symptoms of either HAPE or HACE, it is imperative to get to a lower altitude as soon as possible.

Another form of altitude sickness is referred to as chronic mountain sickness, or Monge's disease. Instead of developing symptoms within a few hours or days after climbing, people with Monge's disease will generally start to develop symptoms after living at a high altitude. It can start within a few months, but most of the time, symptoms will present themselves after a few years. These symptoms are very similar to those of acute mountain sickness and may also include tinnitus, skin discoloration, and vein dilation.

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