When you undertake ascents to high altitudes without the necessary acclimatization, your body can suffer the so-called acute mountain sickness or altitude sickness. Learn how you should act to avoid its consequences.
It is called acute mountain sickness, or colloquially altitude sickness or soroche. In some Latin American areas, clinical symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, exhaustion, and headaches. This appears when, due to the altitude, we are faced with certain conditions: a decrease in atmospheric pressure and consequently less oxygen availability. Our body cannot adapt at that moment and begins to react to compensate for the changes.
It is not a disease but a reaction to adverse conditions (hypoxia or lack of oxygen) and affects people of all ages and sex. Of course, the higher and faster you climb, the more serious the disorder will be. To better understand this phenomenon, we will give a brief review of the circulatory system.
The blood is composed of a set of cells, including erythrocytes are some calls. These erythrocytes are mostly made up of a protein, hemoglobin, responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the body. When all these proteins are loaded to the maximum, it is said that we have a 100% oxygen saturation in the blood, and the less load they carry, the lower percentage there will be.
Under normal conditions, at sea level and with a pressure of one atmosphere, the air’s oxygen concentration is approximately 21%, sufficient for a correct saturation in humans. But what happens when we begin to ascend in height?
How does altitude affect the body?
When we find ourselves in a different environment from the one we are used to, the body goes through acclimatization processes to get used to the new conditions. However, if these changes occur faster than we react, the acclimatization process can begin to fail and cause problems. In the case of altitude, the problem we face is a lack of oxygen or hypoxia.
The severity of this disease is directly related to the altitude at which we find ourselves. As a general rule, the body begins to be affected from 2,400 meters above sea level, which is considered a ‘death zone’ at altitudes from 8,000 meters.
But that does not mean that it is impossible to live in the heights. The acclimation makes us able to adapt.
People who live in high mountain areas, such as Chile, are used to it. And how is this possible? It is very easy to create more blood cells to carry more oxygen if there is little oxygen available. Anyone can acclimatize with a little time, and that is why people with more experience in mountaineering have a lower risk of suffering from altitude sickness.
Causes of mountain sickness
The symptoms of altitude sickness appear as you climb, and the atmospheric pressure drops, thus reducing the partial pressure of oxygen and therefore its availability. The most frequent causes of mountain sickness that can be seen in those affected are:
- An ascent that is too fast does not allow the body to acclimatize, such as climbing to high altitude areas in vehicles instead of on foot.
- Ascend without prior physical preparation. Someone who has never been above 2,000 meters in altitude will find it more difficult to adapt to those conditions than someone with experience. It is very common to see this in inexperienced young people who are too eager to complete the objective of the ascent to the mountain.
- Poor diet or insufficient hydration can also hinder the body’s acclimatization process to altitude.
The so-called altitude sickness or soroche is a problem that more easily affects younger people (under 50 years of age, because their nervous system is more immature or that they ascend faster than older people).
There is also a personal susceptibility to suffering that can vary from one individual to another. And remember that if you have suffered from mountain sickness before, it is more likely that it will happen again in similar conditions.