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The levels of oxygen in the air decreases as the altitude increases, which can cause altitude sickness. The faster the altitude increases, the more likely a person is to suffer from altitude sickness. Age, sex or fitness levels do not affect the likelihood of suffering from altitude sickness, however some pre-existing conditions such as congenital heart disease may worsen in high altitudes, so this should be discussed with your GP before travelling to high altitudes. There are three forms of altitude sickness: Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPE or HAPO) and High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACE or HACO). AMS is mild whilst the later two require urgent medical attention and can be fatal.
The exact cause of altitude sickness is unknown, however it occurs when people travel to high altitudes too quickly. As the altitude increases, the air pressure and oxygen levels decrease, therefore the body takes in less oxygen with each breath. The body adjusts to the new altitude by breathing faster and deeper to intake more oxygen. However, if the altitude increases too quickly the body has less time to adjust, resulting in a feeling of sickness.
AMS symptoms start 4-6 hours after arriving at a high altitude. Symptoms include:
Loss of appetite
Nausea or vomiting
HACE is caused by swelling of the brain. Symptoms include:
Unable to walk in a straight line
HAPE causes fluid build up in the lungs. Symptoms include:
Persistent coughing (phlegm may be frothy and white/pink)
Shortness of breath, which progresses
Blue-tinged skin or lips (cyanosis)
What should I consider before travelling to a high altitude?
Other than whether you suffer from altitude sickness or not, sun exposure, low temperature and what types of food and drink to take should also be considered.
Who is prone to altitude sickness?
Anyone can suffer from altitude sickness. If you have previously suffered from altitude sickness, you may be more prone to suffer from it again.
Can altitude sickness kill you?
AMS is common and people only experience mild symptoms. However, HAPE or HACE can be life-threatening and must be treated urgently.