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How to Avoid High Altitude Sickness in the Himalayas

Nepal is the Holy Grail for trekking enthusiasts across the world. As such, most of these ventures explore high altitude and such adventures come with a lot of risks. High altitude sickness while Trekking in the Nepal Himalayas is a common occurrence. There are many factors which cause altitude sickness, especially preventable causes such as inexperience and haste. However, altitude sickness can be prevented and treated if appropriate caution is applied.

There are a plethora of trekking routes in Nepal including some of the most famous ones in the world. Obviously, these treks also involve massive risks of High Altitude Sickness. Starting off with the Everest Base Camp Trek, it goes up to an altitude of 5545 meters. While the routes are very easy to walk on, the altitude can pose a problem for some people. This is why guides and itineraries make sure that there are regular acclimatization stays at different heights throughout the trip. Another trekking route that can cause difficulty is the Annapurna Circuit Trek, especially at the Thorung La Pass (5416 m). Thanks to its altitude and a difficult trail to navigate, trekkers often find this part the most difficult on the entire trek. On this trip too, several days are set aside to help the body adapt to the new heights.

How to Avoid High Altitude Sickness While Trekking in Nepal

One of the longest and toughest treks, the one that encircles the Kanchenjunga Mountain (8586 m), the third highest mountain in the world, also reaches an altitude of over 5000m. This also makes trekkers prone to altitude sickness. Another circuit trek is the one done around Manaslu (8163 m), the eighth highest mountain in the world. The highest point on this trail is at 5160 meters at the Larkya La Pass and this also contributes to making the climb a challenging one.

So, it is clear that the high altitude treks all pose a certain amount of risk for everyone and need to be approached with necessary caution. Acclimatization is an unavoidable part of the treks. Additionally, there is a number of other things that one can do to prevent altitude sickness. Maintaining a steady pace without causing excessive physical strain is also a way to do so. Besides these, trekkers can also consume medications to mitigate the effects and symptoms of altitude sickness.

 What is High Altitude Sickness?

Due to the effect of gravity, the air gets thinner as the altitude increases. This means that there is less oxygen in the atmosphere as there is a rise in altitude. High altitude sickness, also known as Acute Mountain Sickness, is when the body has difficulty adjusting to a higher altitude. Trekking in Nepal at high altitudes is something that is extremely enjoyable but can also become something extremely dangerous if sufficient precautions are not taken to deal with altitude sickness.

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 What Causes High Altitude Sickness?

One of the main causes of altitude sickness is ascending too quickly and not giving the body enough time (usually a couple of days) to acclimatize to a certain height. This leads to hypoxia, or lack of oxygen to the tissues, causing life-threatening conditions. People who live near the sea level could be more susceptible to the condition. The fast pace of the ascent can cause altitude sickness due to excessive stress upon the bodies of the travelers.

Types of Altitude Sickness

Occurring within a few to 24 hours of crossing the altitude of 2,400 meters, altitude sickness can either be mild or severe. There are three main types of this condition: Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), and High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE).

AMS is the mildest form that can start at about 2400m or 3000m and can come with symptoms like nausea, dizziness, headache, and fatigue. HAPE is more life-threatening and starts at about 5500m with fluid accumulation in the lungs and causes breathlessness even while at rest. It can also cause high fever and foaming at the mouth. HACE is the most severe form where fluid accumulates in the brain and can initially cause confusion, physical clumsiness (ataxia), light sensitivity (photophobia), emotional outbursts or lethargy, rapid heartbeat, and fever followed by drowsiness and loss of consciousness. HAPE and HACE both require immediate descent to a lower altitude and medical attention.

Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

The first symptoms of high altitude sickness to set in usually range from nausea, dizziness, and headaches to loss of appetite, sleeplessness, hyperventilation, and fatigue. As the sickness progresses quickly, it can cause unconsciousness and even death. When somebody gets severe altitude sickness, it can lead to very serious conditions such as micro bleeding (aneurysms) in and hemorrhage of the brain.

Ways to Prevent High Altitude Sickness

Most human settlements in the world from at heights less than or at a couple of thousand meters. So, bodies not used to higher elevations find it difficult to function in low-oxygen environments whereas bodies of people who live at high altitude settlements are well-equipped with genes effective at utilizing every oxygen molecule to its full extent. But all hope is not lost for the former category of people who want to explore the Himalayas of Nepal.

Acclimatization, Climbing Up and Down, Hydration, and Medication

The process of acclimatization allows the body to adapt to a place with less oxygen pressure than it is used to. This is done by gradually ascending to one’s destination and stopping for a few days to acclimatize. It is recommended that trekkers do not climb more than around 300m per day. And since breathing slows down at night, which can worsen altitude sickness, it is also recommended that trekkers come back to a slightly lower altitude. Since the physical exertion and breathing in lower oxygen levels require more energy than usual, eating extra calories is necessary. Drinking a few liters of water every day should also be a priority to prevent dehydration. If a person is sweating very heavily, it is also important to prevent electrolyte imbalance with the help of electrolyte drinks.

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All this can be done in conjunction with climbing at a comfortable and steady pace as well as taking, in advance, acetazolamide (commonly sold as Diamox). Diamox is a medication prescribed for preventing altitude sickness by speeding up acclimatization and easily found in pharmacies in Nepal.

Ways to Deal with and Cure High Altitude Sickness

Medication!  Immediate Descent! and Emergency Services!

If symptoms continue to persist or become worse, immediately climbing down to a lower altitude and seeking medical attention is the most important line of action to take. During the descent, oxygen tanks and masks and portable hyperbaric bags could be required to provide relief and buy some valuable time for the ill. Helicopters conduct emergency rescue operations for severe cases whenever required.

So, mainly, acclimatization for prevention and immediate descent for cure are considered to be the golden standards to avert and deal with altitude sickness.

Preparations to Avoid High Altitude Sickness

Aerobic Exercises, Long Day Hikes, and Strength-Training

Before leaving for a high-altitude climb, training is a good way to prepare for the trip. Aerobic workouts are especially helpful in increasing lung capacity, which could help with preventing altitude sickness. Going on long-distance day hikes, especially to higher altitudes, can help build up endurance and focusing on strength-training of legs can help with preventing sore muscles and joints. These exercises help to make the body stronger and prepare the travelers for the journey as well.

However, one thing that needs to be kept in mind is that anybody can be affected by altitude sickness, regardless of age, sex, and fitness level. Children are also not necessarily more susceptible to it than adults. It is believed that after getting it once, the likelihood of getting it again in a future trip is more likely. People with preexisting health conditions can also be more prone to suffering from it. Strangely, it could also affect someone on one occasion but not another. Nevertheless, increasing cardiovascular activities in one’s daily workout can help someone get in good shape and improve their lung capacity and heart function, which can aid in preventing altitude sickness.

Conclusion

High altitude sickness should never be taken too lightly. It can quickly progress from bad to worse or even set in suddenly and severely. Ascending only gradually to higher elevations is the best way to prevent it and descending immediately if symptoms get severe is the chief way to deal with it. In addition, staying hydrated, eating enough, taking proper medication, and going at a steady pace should also be prioritized. As altitude sickness is one of the common problems among visitors to the high Himalayas of Nepal, medication, medical attention, and medical evacuation by trained and organized professionals is part of the insurance services provided by the trekking and mountaineering industry here.

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As the proverb goes, prevention is better than cure. Thus, acclimatization should be the main priority of every novice as well as every experienced traveler. And since one can always go back to do a trip again, giving up and descending when required is also an essential part of high altitude treks. But with plenty of information on prevention and cure available these days, it can usually be easy to ensure that high altitude sickness does not interfere with someone’s travels and their fun. Travel the Himalayas and enjoy their sublime beauty while keeping a keen eye on the risks involved with such travel.

                                                                                    “Travel Safe!  Travel Better!”
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