No one is born a mountaineering expert, not even those who are born to be mountaineers. Because of this, there are many enthusiasts who run into medical terms they either don’t understand or have never heard of altogether.
Here’s a rundown of some common high-altitude sicknesses and what to do if you come across them. Consider this High-Altitude Sickness Lesson 101. For a more in-depth explanation on high altitude sickness, see our article on “Signs of High Altitude Sickness, Treatment and Prevention.”
Altitude Sickness is a general term used to describe a series of more specific medical conditions that may affect a person when exposed to high altitudes, as is the case with high-altitude mountaineers.
Common altitude sicknesses include Hypoxia, High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), which we will explain below. These sicknesses can range in symptoms and effects including confusion, pulmonary edema and even death. Although not widely studied, more research has been done to fully understand them in recent years; an example being the 2006 Nova special where a research team of doctors and mountaineers led by Dr. Peter Hackett ascended Mount Denali in Alaska to better understand the effects of altitude sickness.
High-Altitude Cerebral Edema or HACE
High-Altitude Cerebral Edema, or HACE, is a form of altitude sickness where the brain swells with fluid. It is brought on by exposure to high-altitude conditions.
Symptoms of HACE include ataxia, which is difficulty walking, confusion, headache and seizures. The only treatment for HACE is to reduce exposure to high altitudes by descending immediately. In cases where the patient is too debilitated to descend, the use of a hyperbaric chamber bag will reduce the experienced altitude level until descent is possible.
Dexamethasone can be taken at a dose of 8mg once, then 4mg every 6 hours (consult with a doctor).
High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema or HAPE
High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema, or HAPE, is a serious medical condition that results in the accumulation of fluid in the lungs as a result of exposure to high-altitude conditions.
Symptoms of HAPE include shortness of breath when resting, fatigue out of proportion with exertion, pale skin and the expelling of pinkish foam from the mouth.
Treatment for HAPE includes the increase of oxygen to the patient via an oxygen bottle with a generous flow of oxygen, the immediate descent of the patient or the use of a hyperbaric chamber if descent is not possible.
Patients can also take nifedipine (Procardia) at a dose of 30mg (sustained release). Always consult with a doctor for proper usage of medical drugs. If proper treatment is not rendered in time, the patient will experience death by drowning, brought on by the fluid present in the lungs.
Hypoxia is a severe medical condition that occurs when the tissues in the body are deprived of oxygen, as is the case with high-altitude mountaineering. symptoms of hypoxia include severe confusion, disorientation, changes in skin color from blue to red or vice versa and the shortness of breath and wheezing.
Historically, hypoxia has been the cause of many deaths on high-altitude climbs; it is believed to have been the cause of Andy Harris’ death during the 1996 Everest Disaster on May 10. Historical accounts, like those in Jon Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air”, report that he was disoriented and confused and may have unintentionally walked off the edge of the mountain during their expeditions.
Treatment for hypoxia includes the immediate descent of the patient to a more manageable elevation and the introduction of oxygen into the patient’s system.
While there isn’t much advancement in the study of high-altitude effects on the human body, there are some resources. If you’re really looking to learn more, we suggest “High-Altitude Medicine and Physiology 5th Edition.”
NPS. “Part 2: Mountaineering Medical Issues.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.
NPS. “Medical Research Climbs Denali (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.
“Hypoxia and Hypoxemia.” WebMD. WebMD, n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.