The onset of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) symptoms can be fairly common to most lowland travelers in the Himalayas and are not instantly cause for alarm. Symptoms of AMS begin with a headache and slight nausea, sometimes referred to as mountain sickness. Other symptoms then start to manifest themselves including loss of appetite, dizziness, sleeplessness, fatigue or vomiting. This is when medical attention becomes needed.
The important aspect to monitor is if the symptoms are getting better or worse. If they’re getting better, you can proceed with caution; if they’re getting worse however, the one sure-fire cure is to descend. Many travelers shrug off the symptoms as par for the course and continue up, not wanting to “miss out” on their vacation or goals. This puts travelers in peril that need not happen. If you feel a headache coming on, take a break, drink more water and maybe take some pain-killers. If symptoms persist, it’s time to change course and listen to your body. A rest day at a lower altitude might be all you need, but if you push it and develop more serious symptoms, your holiday (and maybe more) is over.
Here are few tips that will help you prevent and minimize the development of AMS while you are on the road:
1. Travel with an experienced, trained guide with whom you can communicate easily. A good guide will keep track of your energy level, cognitive ability and appetite. Don’t skimp on a cheap guide. Go slow. Do not compare your pace to Sherpas or porters on the trail who have adapted to these conditions. Again, this is when a good guide is vital as they won’t push you beyond your limit just to keep the group going.
2. Hydrate more than you think you need to. The average heart rate of a trekker at rest at 12,000 ft. is close to that of their jogging heart rate at sea level. Just sitting there your heart is beating faster and you are breathing a lot more, which causes water-loss. Drink lots of water.
3. Consider a drug called Diamox before leaving home. While it does have some side effects, (which is why you should take it before arriving) it helps some trekkers.
4. Pressure breathing helps. Instead of just your normal panting, force the air out of your lungs to take good, deep breaths.
5. Take acclimatization days to help your body acclimatize by going higher than where you sleep. This means pushing maybe 1,500’ higher and then returning back to your lodge or camp.
6. Catch signs early and monitor them with ‘pulse-oximeter’. This simple device (about USD $50 for a good one) clamps on a finger and monitors pulse as well as the saturation of oxygen in blood. You can check the device each morning and night, typically at meals. It’s just another tool to see if trekkers are getting enough oxygen or if they have symptoms that are worsening.
7. Rest and enjoy the view.
The good thing about AMS is you can stop worrying about it once you have reached your highpoint and are heading back to the lowlands. No matter how fit you are or how much you’ve trained, AMS can strike and you won’t know until you get there. It’s important to know the symptoms and what to do to ensure you have a safe and enjoyable holiday. Stay safe and enjoy your climb!