How Do You Treat Hypoxia, Or Altitude Sickness?


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Patricia Devereux Profile
Hypoxia, or acute mountain sickness, can strike as low as 6,300 feet.
At 8,000 feet in California's Sierra Nevada range, my backpacking friend was approached by a woman who said her daughter was sick. The overweight teen was in the final stages of cerebral edema. Although he was an EMT, my friend could do nothing, and the girl was dead by morning.
Edema is when bubbles form in the blood from lack of oxygen. Pulmonary edema develops in the lungs, and cerebral (much more serious) in the brain. Both can be fatal unless treated.
The number one way to prevent hypoxia is to ascend slowly, preferably sleeping at altitude before undertaking strenuous activities. Beginning at more than 12,000 feet, never climb more than 1,000 feet in a single day.
Drink plenty of water, but not too much. The old wives' tale is you need to drink until your urine runs clear, but this can create electrolyte imbalances.
Avoid alcohol, which restricts the capillaries. Over-the-counter pain and sleep medicines depress the central nervous system and suppress breathing -- not a good idea at high altitude.
Eat a lot of carbohydrates, versus fats, which take much more oxygen to digest.
The number one cure for hypoxia is descent, but slowly. The drug diamox can be taken as a preventative to increase respiration, but the jury is still out on its effectiveness. Viagra also helps as it increases blood flow. Take aspirin or ibuprofen for headaches.
Once one develops a pulmonary edema, however mild, the ability to process altitude is severely limited forever. An example is Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the first ascenders of Mount Everest, who eventually developed an edema and now cannot go over 10,000 feet.

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