A headache, fatigue, and dizziness at mountainous destinations can be signs of high-altitude sickness, also known as mountain sickness. These symptoms occur because the body needs time to adapt to the lower oxygen content of air at high altitudes, usually those above 8,000 feet. As the altitude increases, if the body does not have enough time to adjust, other symptoms develop, including confusion, shortness of breath, and fatigue. In extreme cases, the brain and lungs may enlarge and be damaged. Temporary treatments such as hydration can address symptoms of high-altitude sickness, but removal to a lower altitude is often the only solution.
A headache may be the only sign of altitude sickness, and headache medication plus hydration is the simple treatment. Still, it is an important warning sign that should remind you to avoid alcohol and caffeine at least until you have spent a few days adjusting to this new height. You should also be careful about going to sleep with altitude sickness, as the condition could worsen during your sleep.
Dizziness can be a sign that low air pressure and oxygen levels are affecting the brain. Confusion, physical instability that looks similar to a drunk individual, and difficulty maintaining consciousness may accompany this condition. Begin with hydration and consider more spending more time at a lower altitude to adjust before continuing.
The muscles will also be affected by less available oxygen, and the degree of fatigue may be surprising, especially to younger people. If you are hiking, take care that fatigue doesn't lead to injury as you ascend. People at high altitudes who are experiencing fatigue should also stay alert to other symptoms such as a racing heartbeat.
Effects of low oxygen on the brain can lead to insomnia. Wakefulness can be an advantage since sleeping at high altitudes before acclimating can allow symptoms of high altitude sickness to progress during sleep. In severe cases, this progression could lead to coma or death overnight as the brain enlarges and the lungs accumulate fluid, making it difficult to breathe.
Dizziness, headache, disorientation, and lack of balance can combine to give affected individuals a sensation similar to motion sickness, but it may not be the car or plane ride that caused it. Vomiting from these symptoms will exacerbate dehydration, resulting in accelerated onset of altitude sickness. While medication is available to manage these symptoms, the preferred solution is to return to a lower altitude before the situation worsens, even if only for a few days.
The body tries to adapt to the rapid change in altitude in various ways, including increasing respiration and heart rate. For this reason, people with heart or lung conditions are often advised not to climb to high altitudes, or even take trips to high elevation locations such as ski areas. Pregnant women should also consult doctors before traveling to high altitudes, especially if they have not previously taken such a trip.
Most people who ascend to high altitudes quickly experience some difficulty breathing, especially when they attempt to climb stairs or otherwise exert effort. When shortness of breath persists with even mild exertion, the effects of altitude are becoming more severe. If a person at a high altitude experiences shortness of breath in a resting state, this is a sign of severe altitude sickness and must be addressed immediately.
Severe altitude sickness includes shortness of breath even at rest, an inability to walk, a cough, and bluish-gray or pale skin color from lack of oxygen. A person exhibiting these symptoms should be taken to a lower altitude immediately, as this indicates an emergency many high-altitude locations cannot properly address.
Confusion, apparent sleepiness or decreased consciousness, and an inability to walk straight indicate the brain is experiencing a severe lack of oxygen. For hiking trips, it is important that members of the group check in with each other when arriving at new destinations and watch for signs of hypoxia or low oxygen.
When the lungs are filling with fluid as a result of altitude sickness, the person may cough up bloody mucus or foam in an attempt to clear space for breathing. This is a sign that an individual requires emergency attention, both to transport him or her to a lower altitude and to address the fluid in the lungs. Rescue personnel should also look for any other ways compromised bodily functions, as exhibited by confusion or weakness.
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