The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 35 million people travel to altitudes of 3,000 metres or above each year. However, there are risks associated with climbing to altitude. Acute mountain sickness (AMS) can be unpleasant and may reduce enjoyment of activities. In addition, if it is not managed appropriately it can result in more serious illness which can lead to death. An understanding of the prevention and recognition of AMS is important to anyone travelling to high altitude.
Further details on the problems that altitude can bring are covered in the separate leaflet called Altitude/Mountain Sickness.
As you climb or travel (ascend) to altitude the air becomes thinner. Due to the lower pressure of the air, there is less oxygen available per breath.
This lack of oxygen triggers changes in your body to help it adapt to its new environment. These normal changes are 'acclimatisation'. This means that your body is adapting to conditions. Changes include breathing faster than usual, getting more short of breath with increased activity (exertion) and passing urine more frequently.
Acute mountain sickness (AMS) may be experienced when your body is not acclimatised to the altitude.
The main symptom is headache, which is as a result of mild swelling of the brain, caused by the reduced oxygen levels. This can vary in severity. Rarely, people can experience more severe swelling leading to a condition called high altitude cerebral oedema (HACE). Further details on this serious condition are in the separate leaflet called Altitude/Mountain Sickness.
For a diagnosis of acute mountain sickness (AMS) to be made you need a headache plus one other symptom from:
If you experience any of these symptoms at altitude and wonder whether you have AMS, you can score yourself to find out.
The Lake Louise score is a scoring system used to make a diagnosis of acute mountain sickness (AMS). This is something you can do yourself to decide how severe your symptoms are and what they mean. The scoring is as follows:
|Headache||No headache |
|Gut (gastrointestinal) symptoms||None |
Poor appetite or nausea
Moderate nausea and/or vomiting
Severe nausea and/or vomiting
|Fatigue and/or weakness||Not tired or weak |
|Dizziness/light-headedness||Not dizzy |
|Difficulty sleeping||Slept as well as usual |
Did not sleep as well as usual
Woke many times, poor sleep
Could not sleep at all
A total score of 3 to 5 = mild AMS and 6 or more = severe AMS. Remember that any symptoms at altitude are altitude illness until proven otherwise.
The best way to try to prevent altitude sickness is to climb up (ascend) to higher altitudes slowly. This gives time for your body to adapt to conditions (acclimatise). Different people will acclimatise at different rates. Remember to drink enough fluids (keep well hydrated) and eat enough food (stay well nourished).
There are also drugs that can be taken to prevent acute mountain sickness (AMS), the most widely known being acetazolamide (Diamox®). These are most suitable for people who have been known to have problems in the past or who unavoidably have to ascend more quickly than recommended. The routine use of acetazolamide before ascent is not recommended. The better strategy for prevention is to ascend slowly and to be aware of any developing symptoms.
There are recommended rates of ascent to altitude to help with adapting to conditions (acclimatisation).
If you are suffering with symptoms of mild acute mountain sickness (AMS), the first step is to rest at the same altitude. Usually symptoms resolve with rest and painkillers (paracetamol/ibuprofen) within 24 hours. If symptoms do not resolve or if symptoms get worse, then move down (descend). It is common that even a short descent and rest will improve symptoms significantly. It may still be possible to climb up again (re-ascend) if you have recovered and your schedule allows for this.
Acetazolamide (Diamox®) can used for the prevention and treatment of acute mountain sickness (AMS). There is good evidence for its effectiveness. Acetazolamide speeds up your rate of adapting to conditions (acclimatisation) but it does not mask the symptoms of AMS. Acetazolamide does not protect against worsening AMS with continued climbing upwards (ascent). You cannot buy acetazolamide from a chemist; you will require a prescription from your GP. The usual dose of acetazolamide for prevention is 125 mg twice a day. A common side-effect with acetazolamide is pins and needles.
There is some evidence that the steroid, dexamethasone, can be used to prevent AMS. However, this is not recommended for routine use in travellers to high altitudes.
There is no reliable evidence for any other medications (including gingko biloba) at present. In some parts of South America travellers to high altitude may be offered coca leaves. These can be used to make tea or the leaves can be chewed. These are known to act as a mild stimulant but there is no evidence they help prevent AMS.