Altitude Sickness: What First Aiders Need to Know

Altitude Sickness: What First Aiders Need to Know

Altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), is a condition that can occur when individuals ascend to high altitudes too quickly, where the air pressure and oxygen levels are lower. While altitude sickness is typically not life-threatening, it can cause discomfort and potentially progress to more severe forms if not addressed properly. In this guide, we'll explore what first aiders need to know about altitude sickness, its symptoms, and the steps to take when providing assistance.

1. Understanding Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness is a response to the reduced oxygen levels at higher altitudes. It can occur when ascending to altitudes above 8,000 feet (2,400 meters) relatively quickly. The severity of symptoms varies, and individuals can experience mild to severe discomfort.

2. Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

Mild Symptoms:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty sleeping

Severe Symptoms (Seek Immediate Medical Help):

  • Severe headache that does not improve with pain relievers
  • Shortness of breath at rest
  • Persistent vomiting
  • Confusion or altered mental state
  • Coughing up pink or frothy sputum

3. First Aid Measures

a. Descent

Priority: The best way to address altitude sickness is to descend to a lower altitude.

Immediate Action: If an individual is experiencing severe symptoms, it's crucial to initiate a descent as soon as possible. Descending by 1,000 to 2,000 feet can lead to significant improvement.

b. Rest and Hydration

Rest: Encourage the affected person to rest and avoid strenuous activity.

Hydration: Drinking plenty of fluids can help alleviate symptoms and prevent dehydration.

c. Pain Relief

Pain Relievers: Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or aspirin can help alleviate headaches and discomfort.

d. Oxygen

Supplemental Oxygen: If available, providing supplemental oxygen can help relieve symptoms.

4. Prevention and Precautions

Gradual Ascension: Gradually ascend to higher altitudes to allow the body time to acclimatize.

Stay Hydrated: Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated, as dehydration can worsen altitude sickness.

Avoid Alcohol and Medications: Avoid alcohol and certain medications that can contribute to dehydration and worsen symptoms.

Recognize Limits: Be aware of your own and others' physical limits. If symptoms worsen despite preventive measures, consider descending.

5. High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE)

HAPE: This is a severe form of altitude sickness that involves fluid accumulation in the lungs. Symptoms include severe shortness of breath, coughing up pink or frothy sputum, and extreme fatigue.

HACE: This is a life-threatening condition involving brain swelling. Symptoms include severe headache, confusion, clumsiness, and altered mental state.

6. When to Seek Medical Help

Severe Symptoms: If an individual is experiencing severe symptoms, such as those associated with HAPE or HACE, seek immediate medical attention.

Worsening Symptoms: If symptoms are not improving with rest and descent, or if they are getting worse, seek medical help.

Altitude sickness is a common concern for individuals traveling to high altitudes. While most cases are mild and can be managed with proper rest and hydration, severe forms like HAPE and HACE require immediate medical attention. First aiders should be familiar with the symptoms of altitude sickness and the appropriate steps to take to ensure the well-being of individuals experiencing its effects. Preventive measures and gradual acclimatization are key to minimizing the risk of altitude sickness when traveling to higher altitudes.

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