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High Altitude Sicknesses

Apart from these common diseases, one may encounter some special kind of diseases, which attack only on higher areas. These are commonly known as Altitude Sicknesses e.g. Frost Bite, Dehydration, Snow Blindness and Edemas etc.

Following is the introduction of above-mentioned diseases and precautionary measures however care should be taken for prevention from these ailments.


Frostbite affects at high altitudes because of extremely cold environment and due to reduced oxygen when body becomes less efficient at generating internal warmth, making hand and feet more susceptible to freezing. Frostbite is freezing of the tissues, and most commonly affects toes, fingers, and face. When body heat is lost faster than it can be replaced by the circulating blood, or direct exposure to extreme cold or high wind, it can result into Frostbite.

Damp feet can freeze when moisture conducts heat away from the skin and destroys the insulating value of socks and boots. With continued cold or inactivity, circulation to extremities is steadily reduced, accelerating the freezing process. Use of quality mountaineering clothing and equipment, may reduce chances of frostbite.

An area affected by frostbite looks white or gray. Surface skin feels hard, but underlying tissue will be soft. By the increase of frostbite, the affected area becomes hard, cold, and insensitive. To warm frostbitten areas, place them against a companion's abdomen or armpits.

One may warm up his fingers in his own armpits. During re-warming, large blisters may appear on the surface, as well as in the underlying tissue so never forget following important cautions:

  1. do not raise the temperature by warming up near a fire
  2. never rub the injured part, especially with snow

The additional cooling and the abrasive action further damage devitalized tissues. Misguided efforts to give speedy relief invariably increase the injury.

Snow Blindness

On higher altitudes or while walking on glaciers, the reflection of sun rays especially ultra violet, becomes very harmful to eyes. Not taking it seriously may result in sore eyes or temporary blindness which may prove permanent.

Protection from snow blindness is quite easy. A cap with sunshade and dark black sunglasses should be used. Some special kind of glasses for trekkers and climbers that are closed from the sides are best.


Sunburn can be a particular problem for trekkers on snow or at high elevations. Using a cream with a high protection factor is recommended which should be applied regularly to all exposed flesh, and special care should be taken to cover the inside of the nose and ears and the underside of the chin. All sun-care products should be carried in a pocket where they are easily accessible and applied throughout the day.


Blisters can be very uncomfortable and spoil a pleasant day (for details, Feet Care, refer to chapter General Instructions), so care should be taken in this regard.

Heat Exhaustion and Dehydration

Excessive heat is equally harmful to body as severe cold is. This can result in heat stroke and dehydration, both of which can be dangerous if left untreated. Dehydration causes lethargy, muscle cramps and headaches: the urine is very dark brown in color. All of these signs of dehydration can also indicate a failure to acclimatize well to altitude and in low temperatures can make the victim more prone to frostbite.

Adequate fluid intake is best to avoid dehydration and if possible, the body should be cooled down. The fluids should be taken in small amounts regularly and no extra salt should be added. Thirst is a poor indicator of fluid requirement, especially when trekking is in cold and dry atmosphere.

Protection of head against the sun and clothing with maximum ventilation is best to avoid heat exhaustion. A good hat or cap with sun shade preferably covering neck also, is recommended.

Acute Mountain Sickness

While ascending rapidly to a higher place from low altitude, for which a person may not accustomed to, the body system starts working to adjust to the new conditions. Breathing becomes more rapid to inhale enough oxygen from the thin air, and the blood increases its proportion of oxygen-carrying red corpuscles. The person starts to feel uncomfortable and breathing becomes more laborious. First comes a general depression and loss of appetite, then headache, followed by increasing weakness and lessening of interest in trekking or walking. A retreat to lower elevations usually brings about rapid improvement.

Some simple measures can help to avoid the attack of altitude sickness.

First: use the rest stop to give leg muscles mini-rests all the way up the mountain and maintain measured and methodical breathing.

Second: take occasional full rest stops with forced deep breathing. Drink lots of water and keep nourishment up by snacking often and follow a programme of careful acclimatization.

Previously, no medication was suggested for this problem however now some medical experts and specialized texts provide information on the current use of drugs in combating altitude sickness. Two prescription drugs - Diamox and Dexamethasone - are commonly used to aid in prevention and treatment of altitude sickness. But try to avoid medication especially without prescription of doctor. Once get attacked, the best solution is to come down to lower areas.

An ordinary attack of altitude sickness can result into severe attack of edema. There are two types of edemas, cerebral and pulmonary. (detail of edemas are quite technical and beyond the scope of this book).

Normally it starts at the heights above 2500 meters when the air starts to become thin. At hill stations like Murree or Nathiagali, tourists run out of breath while walking even on plain surface. This occurs due to the lack of oxygen. On these altitudes it is not too dangerous. The altitude effect is different for different people, however acclimatization is the best prevention. (Most of the details are extracted from authentic books on mountaineering).


While climbing or gaining height, it should be done slowly and gradually. Rushing to higher areas can be harmful even if you are physically fit and have a good stamina. The body needs time to acclimatize to higher altitude, however, the time it takes to adapt varies from person to person. Ascend at a moderate rate, averaging 1,000 feet a day in net elevation gain. Try not to overdo your efforts until you've become well acclimated, and schedule rest days after big pushes.

Hydration is critical in avoiding altitude sickness. Rather than relying on a figure for daily liquid consumption, such as 4 quarts per person, monitor your urine output and color. A good rule of thumb is that urine should be copious and clear, while dark urine indicates that you are not drinking enough water.

For climbers the old advice is good "climb high, sleep low ". The body acclimatizes much faster during exertion than during rest, and recovers more smoothly at a lower altitude.

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