Acute Mountain Sickness
• Altitude Sickness, High-Altitude Sickness, Mountain Sickness
• Antioxidants (
Acute mountain sickness is a set of symptoms caused by the lower pressure and reduced amount of oxygen at high altitudes (above 7,000 feet). The symptoms are headache, dizziness, shortness of breath, fatigue, and nausea, or, in serious cases, extreme fatigue, impaired motor control, and fluid accumulation in the brain and lungs. In general, the greater the altitude and the more rapid the ascent, the greater the likelihood of severe symptoms. Many deaths on Mt. Everest and other high mountains can be attributed to the effects of altitude sickness. However, in most cases, altitude sickness is a benign condition that afflicts people from sea level when they go on a ski vacation or hiking in the mountains.
The best treatment for altitude sickness is prevention. Individuals planning an ascent of high mountains such as Mt. Everest should take as much time as possible to acclimate to the starting elevation. Keep in mind that full adjustment to the reduced oxygen content of the air may take several weeks. In general, ascents should be gradual. One recommendation suggests 2 days for an 8,000-foot elevation gain plus 1 day for each 1,000 to 2,000 feet afterwards.
However, such recommendations are not practical for people who fly to a vacation destination, such as a ski resort, and must deal with the effects of reduced oxygen all at once. To prevent or treat mild cases of altitude sickness, you should drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol, caffeine, and salty foods. If severe symptoms develop, the best response is to descend as rapidly as possible.
Conventional treatments include acetazolamide or dexamethasone for prevention or treatment of mild altitude sickness, and nifedipine for people prone to pulmonary edema.
A double-blind trial of 18 mountaineers climbing to the Mt. Everest base camp found that use of an antioxidant vitamin supplement (providing 1,000 mg of
, 400 IU of
Three small, double-blind trials enrolling a total of about 100 people found preliminary evidence that use of the herb
High-carbohydrate meals are sometimes recommended for preventing altitude sickness. The reasoning is that carbohydrate ingestion increases carbon dioxide production, which in turn stimulates an increased rate of breathing.
7. Swenson ER, MacDonald A, Vatheuer M, et al. Acute mountain sickness is not altered by a high carbohydrate diet nor associated with elevated circulating cytokines. Aviat Space Environ Med. 1997;68:499-503.
10. Gertsch JH, Basnyat B, Johnson EW, et al. Randomised, double blind, placebo controlled comparison of ginkgo biloba and acetazolamide for prevention of acute mountain sickness among Himalayan trekkers: the Prevention of High Altitude Illness Trial (PHAIT). BMJ . 2004 Mar 11. [Epub ahead of print]
14. Moraga FA, Flores A, Serra J, et al. Ginkgo biloba decreases acute mountain sickness in people ascending to high altitude at Ollague (3696 m) in Northern Chile. Wilderness Environ Med. 2007;18:251-257.
Last reviewed April 2009 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
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