On top of the mountain, you can sometimes hold your breath – (also) in the literal sense. Because: Above a certain altitude, you run the risk of suffering from a life-threatening lack of oxygen, which is called altitude sickness. This costs mountaineers more lives than accidents involving avalanches, falling rocks, or extreme weather combined. FITBOOK talks to a couple of experts about the symptoms you can recognize and how you should act if you have the disease yourself or with an infected person.
A vacation in the mountains can bring both happiness and dazzling views, but also physical discomfort – and even danger to life. For example, altitude sickness, also known as Acosta disease (named after José de Acosta, a 16th-century Spanish missionary who first described altitude sickness). What’s fatal: Your symptoms are relatively nonspecific, which is why sufferers often don’t know it—let alone how—they should act. This is exactly what the doctors explained to us.
What is altitude sickness?
With an increase in altitude, the air becomes thinner, which means that the proportional oxygen pressure drops and the lungs can absorb less oxygen with the same breath. According to Dr. Manke, who specializes in orthopedics, trauma surgery, sports medicine, acupuncture and chiropractic at Revierdoc, from about 5,500 metres, where the partial pressure of oxygen was reduced by half. But even from a distance of about 2,500 metres, there may be a lack of oxygen supply (technical term: hypoxia) to the brain and other body tissues.
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What symptoms should you look for?
Dr. Manke talks about the “compensation mechanisms” that manifest through different symptoms, depending on the severity of altitude sickness. Early signs include headache, severe nausea, and loss of appetite. The resting heart rate of the injured also increases significantly. Also noteworthy: “Patients with altitude sickness are often elated for no apparent reason.”
If the first symptoms of altitude sickness intensify, such as an almost unbearable headache, and other symptoms appear (shortness of breath, dry cough, dizziness, weakness), according to the expert, then we are already dealing with serious warning signs. Affected people themselves should now notice that they are excreting very little abnormally dark-colored urine.
The next increase, according to Dr. Monkey has already been evaluated as a real alarm signal. “Altitude patients get blue lips, appear very disoriented and dizzy,” the specialist says. “Your breathing is very difficult and is interrupted again and again by a persistent cough with brown phlegm.” At this point, urine is no longer normally produced at all.
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In short: typical symptoms of altitude sickness
- lack of appetite
- High resting heart rate
- heavy trance
- (dry cough
- Shortness of breath
- Blue lips
- brown sputum
- stop producing urine
How to behave correctly in case of altitude sickness
Dr. Manke recommends making treatment for altitude sickness based on the severity of your symptoms. Headaches can be treated with the corresponding strong tablets. But even if the morning signals slip away – please don’t overspend now! More climb should wait until tomorrow, ideally after a good night’s sleep at low altitude.
If the first warning signs appear, according to Dr. Some react instantly! Otherwise, it can develop further and pose a serious threat to life: low air pressure and high blood pressure can cause fluid to accumulate in the lungs and brain. It is therefore important to evacuate the patient immediately. “Independent descent is no longer possible because the sick person at higher altitudes already has severe physical and mental disability,” says the expert.
Cell phone and radio
Dr. Manke stresses that mountaineers should always carry a mobile phone and radio with them so they can call for help in an emergency. Also recommended: Your first aid kits to stabilize potentially ill people as best they can. These include, above all, oxygen bottles (for ventilation) and cortisone tablets. “These are given,” the expert explains, “to prevent potentially fatal water retention.”
leave the mountain
But tablets and other first aid kits or not: “The most important treatment measure With all forms of altitude sickness, there is always a descent.” Medical Ulrich Steiner – an alpine doctor and air rescue doctor in Tirol, who also rescues people with altitude sickness from high mountains.
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Altitude sickness can be prevented: Here’s how!
Dr. Manke stresses that it is important to feel fit before the mountain tour. Those who start with a weak immune system, because they have recently had an infection, are generally more likely to develop altitude sickness. “Other motivating factors are lack of sleep and alcohol,” he adds. “Jägertee” or something similar – to warm up after a hard climb – is taboo. But even if you’re hiking at its best, you should know and watch the following things to prevent altitude sickness.
Pay attention to sleep
According to Dr. Steiner The important rule of thumb: just increase the sleeping height between 300 and 500 meters per day so that the body can acclimatize! This means: after a night at an altitude of 2500 metres, for example, sleeping quarters should ideally be at an altitude of less than 3000 metres. If you have stayed (significantly) higher than the previous day (eg: 3500m), it is recommended that you take a day off and spend the night at the same altitude the next day. Provided, of course, that you don’t have any symptoms of altitude sickness in the meantime.
At the same time, you need to know that adaptability is very individual. Regardless of height, you should definitely and mainly listen to your body.
Do a height tolerance test first
Before embarking on a high-altitude trek, you can also test your altitude tolerance. To do this, you breathe mountain air through a mask. Oxygen saturation and heart rate are measured in the blood with a fingertip pulse oximeter. The result then gives an indication of whether there is a greater chance of developing altitude sickness. However, you should not rely solely on this test, but always prepare well for a trip to the mountains, prepare yourself optimally, act responsibly and pay attention to possible physical warning signs.
It is a particularly treacherous mountain
Altitude doctor Dr. Steiner – who serves on a volunteer basis on the board of directors of the German Society of Mountain Medicine and Expeditions* – also revealed to FITBOOK that a particular mountain is particularly known for its numerous and particularly severe cases of altitude sickness: Mount Kilimanjaro (5895 metres) in Tanzania. why? Because the ascent is not technically difficult and you can “mercilessly increase the height” accordingly, so that even Haines and Koons can climb this almost 6000m summit. The result: an increased incidence of cerebral edema at higher altitudes, which if left untreated can lead to death at any time. According to the expert, the problem has already started with tour operators squeezing Kilimanjaro for 7-day tours. An obvious case: cost and time pressure at the expense of acclimatization!
Don’t underestimate the Alps either
By the way, the problem of life-threatening cerebral edema at high altitudes begins not only in Africa, but in our Alps. Dr. Steiner knows from his colleagues that they regularly have to rescue hikers from mountain huts in the Western Alps because they develop severe forms of altitude sickness. As long as the injured can be quickly evacuated to lower altitudes, most cases will pass slightly. But if the weather prevents a (air) rescue, you could die from it even today – and in Central Europe.
*German Society of Mountain and Expedition Medicine (BEXMED) It encourages further training and education for physicians in alpine medicine and exploratory medicine. In this way one wants to contribute to the prevention of accidents and diseases in the mountains.