Active holidays are popular. Mountain biking, skiing or making a long hike. We prefer to go into the unspoiled nature to enjoy a beautiful view. However, not every person is made for these achievements. As soon as you are in higher areas, altitude sickness can occur. And that is less innocent than it might sound. What starts with a severe headache can even lead to death if you don’t react on time.
Above 2,000 metres
10 to 25 percent of climbers in the Alps suffer from altitude sickness. As soon as you are above 2,000 metres, the first symptoms of altitude sickness can occur. There is less oxygen in the air, which your body has to adapt to. Altitude sickness is caused by the fact that you go up at too high a rate. Especially in areas above 5,000 metres, more than 50 percent of the hikers suffer from altitude sickness.
First symptoms: the first stage
A distinction is made between 3 stages of altitude sickness. Acute altitude sickness is the first thing to occur. Your body has to get used to the reduced amount of oxygen in the air in such a way that there is a headache. This headache decreases with the use of painkillers. Other symptoms of acute altitude sickness are: insomnia, no appetite, nausea, dizziness, less urination and vomiting. If you don’t react in time to these first symptoms, a headache can occur after a while that can’t be suppressed with painkillers. These are the first emergency calls of the body to rest and acclimatize.
If you don’t take enough rest, the symptoms can get worse. At that moment, altitude brain oedema develops. This means that fluid from blood vessels will accumulate in certain parts of the brain. This can happen if you have done a big increase in a few days. A symptom of heightened brain oedema is an extreme headache that cannot be reduced by the use of painkillers. In addition, double vision, hallucinations, memory loss, poor coordination and epileptic seizures are also symptoms. If you suspect that you have high brain oedema, this can be checked by means of coordination tests. If you can no longer walk a straight line, or if you can touch the tip of your nose with your finger when your eyes are closed, there is a possibility that you have altitude brain edema.
More dangerous than you think
In very rare cases, high lung oedema can also occur. This causes blood vessels to leak into the lungs. The oxygen that you breathe can therefore be transported less well to the blood. The result is that you suffocate slowly. It is also seen as a drowning in your own body fluids. The first symptoms of altitude-lung oedema are: tightness of the chest, a very high heartbeat with no effort, chest pain, vomiting of blood, nausea and confusion. As soon as you notice any of these symptoms, you should descend as soon as possible and seek medical attention. In a short time, often during the night, the “drowning” can lead to death. Approximately 1 to 2 percent of people who are above an altitude of 2,500 metres are affected by this form of altitude sickness.
Preventing altitude sickness
Prevention is always better than cure. Never go out unprepared. And certainly not alone. As soon as you go into the mountains without a guide, you are not insured either. If something happens to you during your hike or activity, you will have to pay for it yourself. If you go with a guide then you will be reimbursed up to the Dutch rate from your health insurance. You can take various measures to prevent altitude sickness. For example, we advise you not to climb more than 300 metres per day. It takes 4 to 12 hours before the altitude sickness develops and the first symptoms can be felt. Approximately 65 percent of the climbers who travel to an altitude of 4,000 metres or above, experience (short-term) symptoms of altitude sickness.
Treating altitude sickness
Did you suffer from altitude sickness during your hike or activity? Then your body has given you a signal that you have gone to a certain altitude too quickly. The most important thing is to rest and acclimatise at that moment. This allows your body to get used to the reduced amount of oxygen in the air. After one or more days of rest, you can rise in height again. Provided the symptoms are minimized. If you suspect that you have some form of oedema (2nd or 3rd stage of altitude sickness), then it is recommended to descend. In lower areas there is more oxygen in the air. In addition, you will need to contact a doctor to determine the seriousness of the oedema. These doctors can prescribe medication, but they can also administer extra oxygen by means of oxygen bottles or an oxygen pressure bag.
Where can you get sick of altitude?
You can only get altitude sickness high in the mountains, above 2,000 meters. Within Europe, the most common place where altitude sickness occurs is in the Alps. The highest peak of the mountains in the Alps is 4,809 meters and is the mountain Mont Blanc. Outside Europe are known hiccup and outdoor countries where altitude sickness occurs regularly: Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Tibet, Tanzania, Kenya and Nepal. Nepal in particular is home to the highest mountain in the world: Mount Everest. This mountain is no less than 8