Let us explain what happens as we go to high altitude areas. At the sea level, the oxygen level in the air is approximately 20.8%. Once we ascent to higher elevation, the level of oxygen decreases dramatically. Brain suffers from the low oxygen content, and we feel symptoms of the high altitude sickness.
Our bodies have natural mechanisms to cope with it, however, it takes time to adjust and it only works up to a certain elevation.
The average elevation in Tibet is 4,500 meters and many of the visitors will experience some effects of the high altitude. That’s why it is important to be prepared and follow prevention recommendations.
The best way to prevent altitude sickness is to ascent slowly. It is recommended to climb or walk at a slower pace, take proper rest and sleep well. Walking is always better than driving or taking a flight or train to high altitude areas. The general rule is as you reach 3,000 meters or higher, to go up 300 meters per day and take a rest day for each gained km of elevation. One should keep in mind that “slow but steady wins the race” while climbing.
It is recommended to drink plenty of water and eat more carbohydrates to help dealing with the decreased oxygen level at higher altitude. You should also avoid drinking alcohol, as it causes dehydration.
Whenever in doubt, check with your physician and get proper medication to deal with altitude sickness if it is necessary.
Be patient, it can take different amount of time for people to acclimatize.
Here you can read about seven simple things you can do to prevent altitude sickness»
Symptoms of Altitude Sickness
First of all, there is no definitive way to tell if someone will experience the altitude sickness. However, when the altitude increases, the chances that you will feel some effects are also increasing. At the altitude above 2,500 meters/ 8,000 ft about 20% of people will experience it, while at above 3,000 meters/ 10,00 ft 40% will experience some symptoms.
Some of the symptoms of mild Altitude Sickness can include:
- light or mild headache
- shortness of breath
- fast heart rate
- loss of appetite
- pain in muscles
- overall fatigue or feeling tired
If you experience some of these symptoms, it is best to stop ascent. You will need a day or two to acclimatize to that altitude and after that you can continue ascent. If the symptoms don’t go away or worsen, you should descent to a lower altitude until you feel better.
Symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)
If you ignore the symptoms of the mountain sickness and continue climbing up, you might experience acute mountain sickness.
The symptoms of acute mountain sickness are:
- strong headache
- rapid heartbeat
- shortness of breath when not moving
- tightness in chest
- nausea and/or vomiting
- swelling of face, hands, feet
- change of skin color
If you experience these symptoms, you should immediately stop ascending and descent to a lower altitude. Warn your guide about these symptoms even if it happens at night. The guide will provide you oxygen to lessen the symptoms.
It is best not to stay at the high altitude any further as you can develop HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) and HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema). Both can be extremely dangerous. You have to immediately seek medical help if you experience any of these symptoms:
High Altitude Pulmonary Edema
- coughing, in some cases with fluid
High Altitude Cerebral Edema
- coordination loss
Cure and Medications
If symptoms of acute altitude sickness arise it is recommended to drink plenty of water, move slowly and get some rest. Eating chocolates or chewing some chewing gums while climbing can help, too. You can also use supplemental oxygen to lessen the symptoms. If the symptoms don’t go away, you should go to a lower altitude.
You can take some medications to lessen the symptoms:
- aspirin for headache
- blood pressure medicine (after consulting with a doctor)
- Diamox if your physician prescribed it to you