High Altitude Sickness – Knowing This Could Save Your Life

Boo Radley | | BrainsBrains
altitude sickness, hape, hace, climbing, mountaineering
A lower concentration of oxygen the higher you go. Credit: tugo

We all know of someone that arrived in resort but didn’t make it on the hill because they got hit with high altitude sickness. But did you know that without treatment, complications can occur and altitude sickness can quickly become fatal?

Altitude sickness can strike when you travel to a high altitude above sea level too quickly (usually above 3,000m or 9,842 feet). Breathing becomes difficult because the air is thinner, and you aren’t able to take in as much oxygen. With symptoms like a bad hangover, such as headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and shortness of breath, altitude sickness can be unpleasant but is easy to treat.

  • stop and rest
  • drink water
  • don’t smoke
  • don’t drink alcohol
  • avoid exercise.

For most people, you will feel better quickly and be out on the slopes in no time.

It’s worth noting that altitude sickness does not discriminate, and can occur regardless of age, sex and physical fitness. It can also suddenly affect those that do not normally suffer from it.

Altitude sickness information

Life-Threatening Complications: HAPE and HACE

When symptoms of altitude sickness are ignored, they can lead to serious life-threatening conditions that can affect the brain or lungs.

HAPE or High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema

HAPE or High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema is a build-up of fluid in the lungs, and it can be deadly. These extra symptoms are signs of HAPE and can start to appear a few days after arrival at high altitude:

  • a blue tinge to the skin
  • trouble breathing, even when resting
  • chest tightness
  • a persistent cough with pink or white phlegm
  • feeling tired and weak.

Look out for these symptoms, and treat immediately as follows:

  • move yourself to a lower altitude immediately
  • go to the hospital as soon as possible
  • ask for nifedipine to reduce chest tightness and ease breathing
  • use bottled oxygen, if you have access to it.

HACE or High Altitude Cerebral Oedema

HACE or High Altitude Cerebral Oedema is when a lack of oxygen causes the brain to swell. In addition to the regular symptoms of altitude sickness, HACE may cause confusion and hallucinations.

Someone suffering from HACE is often not aware that they’re ill, and may simply want to be left alone. It can develop quickly over a few hours and can be deadly if it’s not treated immediately.

Treatment for HACE is similar to that of HAPE:

  • get to a lower altitude immediately
  • go straight to the hospital
  • use bottled oxygen, if you have access to it.

HAPE Research

It’s not fully understood what causes HAPE. So if you’ve personally suffered with it, or know someone else that has, get in touch with APEX and register on their research database. Your involvement could help find out what makes HAPE-susceptible people different and could potentially help develop new treatments and save future lives.


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