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How to have a safer adventure at altitude

10 April, 2023
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Are you planning a high-altitude adventure? Whether it's a trek up a mountain or a trip to a high-altitude destination, it's essential to know about altitude illness. Altitude illness can affect anyone, regardless of age or physical fitness, and it can range from mild symptoms to life-threatening conditions.

The body at altitude

So, what exactly happens to the body at high altitudes? The lower atmospheric pressure means there is less oxygen available in the air, which can lead to a decrease in the partial pressure of oxygen in the body. The body will immediately try to compensate by increasing breathing rate and constricting blood vessels, but these physiological responses are not sustainable in the long term.

Acclimatization is the process by which the body adapts to the lower oxygen levels, and it can take several days to a week depending on the altitude and the rate of ascent. However, several factors can affect how the body reacts to altitude, including rate of ascent, underlying conditions, and heredity.


Expedition rutt

Altitude illness refers to a group of health problems that can occur at high altitudes, typically above 2,400 meters (8000 feet). The most common condition is High Altitude Headache (HAH), Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is a more serious condition that can cause headache, nausea, dizziness, diarrhea, and difficulty sleeping.

HAH and AMS can progress into High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), which is a life-threatening condition. Suspect HACE if someone has difficulty walking, seems confused, or has an altered personality compared to before.

High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) is when fluid accumulates in the lung, further worsening the oxygen delivery. It is a serious condition that is the main cause of death due to altitude illness. Symptoms include productive cough and extreme fatigue.  


HAH is usually resolved within 48 hours without treatment, but the symptoms can be alleviated with over-the-counter painkillers. Mild AMS can be treated with rest and over-the-counter medication, but moderate AMS requires descent, and people with severe AMS should be evacuated to a medical facility. HACE and HAPE require immediate descent and evacuation to a medical facility. Treatment with oxygen, prescription drugs, and portable pressure chambers can be used to treat them, but they require specific knowledge and experience.


To prevent altitude illness, it's important to ascend slowly and give your body time to adjust to the lower levels of oxygen. Staying hydrated, avoiding alcohol and tobacco, eating a high-carb diet, and taking it easy for the first 24-48 hours after arriving at a high altitude can also help. Additionally, there are medications that can help prevent or treat altitude sickness, but they should only be taken under the guidance of a healthcare professional.


Sammanfattningsvis uppstår höjdsjuka när kroppen, givet sina personliga förutsättningar i kombination med stigningstakt och omgivningsrelaterade faktorer, inte kan anpassa sig till syrebristen på hög höjd. Både syrebristen i sig och kroppens försök att hantera den, leder till det vi kallar höjdsjuka. Mildare former, såsom höjdorsakad huvudvärk, kan behandlas genom att vila, medan allvarligare former, såsom svår akut höjdsjuka eller höjdorsakat lungödem, kräver omedelbar evakuering. Förebygg detta genom att ta god tid på dig vid stigningen och skydda dig genom att vara uppmärksam på symptomen.  Om du vill lära dig mer om höjdsjuka rekommenderar vi boken “Going High – höghöjdsmedicin för entusiasten”. Don't miss fact sheet on altitude illness!

Contact us if you have any questions regarding altitude medicine or anything else within the vast field of wilderness medicine. And tag our adventures with #adventuremedicine!

Have a wonderful adventure!

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