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The Manual: Stay Healthy at Altitude

Play it safe against altitude sickness.
altitude sickness illo 445x260Illustration by Supercorn

 

 

Treatment: OTC
Take ibuprofen for headaches and ginger extract or capsules for nausea. Altitude accelerates dehydration, which compounds AMS symptoms; avoid alcohol, reduce caffeine intake, and drink enough water so your urine is pale. Eating carbohydrates may also help combat fatigue. If symptoms don’t improve after two days, descend. If you have severe trouble breathing or are disoriented, descend immediately and seek medical attention.

Treatment: Prescription

>> Acetazolamide
This diuretic—sold under the brand name Diamox—is a go-to drug for AMS prevention and treatment. Diamox causes your kidneys to excrete bicarbonate, which slightly acidifies the blood, causing deeper breathing and increased blood oxygen levels. For prevention, take it a day or two before you hit the trail. If you take it when symptoms strike, expect to wait 24 hours or more before they subside. Acetazolamide does not treat HACE or HAPE, so if AMS symptoms persist or worsen, descend to a lower elevation. Side effects include numbness of the extremities and sun sensitivity. Also, carbonated drinks taste bitter, metallic, or sharp.

>> Dexamethasone
An alternative for hikers who can’t tolerate Diamox, dexamethasone treats symptoms of AMS, HAPE, and HACE. This powerful steroid reduces swelling and fluid buildup, but does not speed acclimatization. It’s also an immunosuppressant, so it’s not safe for long-term use.

>> Viagra and Cialis
Don’t believe the rumors. Both drugs decrease blood pressure in the lungs, but, says Luks, “These medications have no proven role in the prevention or treatment of AMS or HACE.”

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