Planning a hike in the Swiss Alps? Don’t let high altitude sickness ruin your adventure. Learn how to beat this unpleasant and potentially serious condition – it is completely preventable! With basic precautions and several safety tips, your hike at high elevations will be a piece of cake!

What is High Altitude Sickness?

High Altitude Sickness, also known as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is the name given to the collection of uncomfortable symptoms that affects some people when they ascend too quickly at high altitudes.

High altitudes are zones that span between 1500-3500 meters (5,000-11,500 feet) and when you enter this zone the oxygen level in the air decreases due to low atmospheric pressure. At these atmospheric conditions, your heart and lungs are actually fighting to gain a sufficient amount of oxygen, so they work overtime. As you ascend, you will notice some ‘normal’ symptoms – an increased breathing rate, shortness of breath or disturbed sleep at night. These are the signs that your body is trying to acclimatize to these new conditions.

But if you ascend at a fast rate, you’re being at the risk of improper acclimatization to current atmospheric conditions which can lead to AMS.

europaweg wehike
Photographed at the Europaweg WeHike. Image Credit: Richard Azia.

What Are the Symptoms of AMS?

Some people can experience unpleasant mild symptoms that are easily eliminated with rest. But, in some people, it can lead to more severe symptoms and potentially serious or life-threatening conditions. Unfortunately, there have been cases that resulted in death.

But who exactly is at the risk of high altitude sickness?

Almost anyone can get AMS, no matter how fit or healthy they are, but the risk simply increases for those people who ascend too quickly or for those who are being too physically active at high altitudes. People who live at very low altitudes are more susceptible to AMS because they are difficult to adjust to the low oxygen levels. Young people are said to be more prone to this condition in comparison to older people.

However, there are three types of altitude sickness, depending on the symptoms.

  • Acute mountain sickness (AMS). This is the most common type of high altitude sickness. AMS can affect an estimated 25 percent of people who travel or hike 2500+ altitudes. A headache, tiredness, dizziness, nausea, appetite loss, fatigue, and vomiting are the most common symptoms of AMS. They occur within several hours and they usually go away within several days.
  • High-altitude cerebral edema (HACE). This is a severe high altitude sickness which demands an immediate medical treatment. Although it happens rarely, usual symptoms, including the most common symptoms of AMS, are extreme fatigue, drowsiness, irrational behavior, confusion, the lack of coordination, disorientation, and hallucinations. This condition can develop quickly and sometimes cannot be noticed immediately, but when symptoms become obvious, an immediate descent is required.
  • High-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). This potentially life-threatening condition results in extreme fatigue, extreme shortness of breath, weakness, cough or chest tightness which occur a few days after ascent at high altitude. A person who suffers this condition should move to lower altitudes immediately and receive a treatment with supplemental oxygen and medication.
wehike le basset col ferret
Photographed by Irene Kowalenko at the Le Basset and Col Ferret WeHike.

How to Treat AMS?

If you start developing any of the symptoms mentioned above, the first thing to do is to move down to the lower altitudes and take a rest. Even a few hundred meters can make a difference. Usually, mild symptoms disappear within 24 hours without any medical treatment, making your conditions stable.

Since dehydration is directly connected to AMS, drink lots of water and reduce the intake of caffeine and alcohol. Take a painkiller such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. It will help to remove a headache.

When AMS symptoms go away, you can try your ascent again, but start slowly and consider these safety tips first.

How to Prevent High Altitude Sickness?

Fortunately, high altitude sickness can be completely preventable. Here are some very useful tips on how to be well-prepared for high altitude hiking.

  • Acclimatize properly. This means you have to ascend gradually. Hiking at a slower rate, especially in the initial stages of your hike is highly recommended. If you’re not sure about the right tempo, a guide or an experienced hiker will help you by setting the proper pace rate.
  • Sleep Low. It is usually recommended to never sleep somewhere more than 1000 m higher than you were the previous night. Your body will acclimatize better and you will be able to continue your hike the next day.
wehike binntal valley passo della rosa
Photographed by Friedhelm Weinberg at the Binntal Valley and Passo della Rosa WeHike.
  • Stay hydrated. Every hiker knows that a proper hydration is imperative for a hiking. Insufficient intake of water can lead to dehydration which can be quite dangerous. Not drinking enough water can affect AMS symptoms and make your condition more serious. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, and don’t forget to optimize your nutrition.
  • Pack Light. An extra weight will only make your hike harder and will burden your body unnecessarily.
  • Consult a doctor. If AMS strikes you frequently, you can consult a doctor who can give you a prescription. Go-to medications will help you to prevent and treat AMS, by allowing your body adjust to rapidly increasing altitudes.

Have you ever experienced mountain sickness? What are your tips for high altitude hiking? Share your thoughts and experiences with us in the comments section.

Featured image credit: Diogo Brãndao

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