There is no need to fear living at high altitudes. In fact, some highland areas such as the Caucasus Mountains are famous for the number of natives who have lived unusually long life. And some people have endured extremely high altitudes for years.
Lived and worked for 13 years at a mine 6,000 meters [19,500 feet] high, near the top of a volcano. Breaking up blocks of sulfur with a sledgehammer was hard work.
Yet, at day’s end, we used to play soccer! The human body is endowed with such remarkable abilities to adapt to new conditions that we marvel at the creator wisdom. How does your body cope with the lack of oxygen at high altitudes?
Your body’s first reaction on exposure to high altitude is to make your heart and lungs work faster. Then you shed plasma from your blood, thus concentrating the oxygen-carrying red cells.
In a short time, extra blood is being diverted to your brain, where it is most needed. And within only a few hours, your bone marrow is already manufacturing extra red blood cells, which may have an increased affinity for oxygen.
All this means that although becoming fully accustomed to the high altitude can take months, within just a few days, your heartbeat and breathing can return to normal.
What causes the headaches? A speaker at the First World Congress of High Altitude Medicine and Physiology, held in Las Paz, Bolivia, explained that many of the symptoms of mountain sickness result from an accumulation of fluid in the brain.
In some people this causes pressure inside the head. Apparently, because of the size of their cranium, some people do not experience these effects.
Nevertheless, in rare cases a life-threatening condition can develop. Loss of muscular control, blurred vision, hallucinations, and mental confusion are signs that warn you to seek medical help immediately and get down to a lower altitude.
The effects of high altitude reach their peak about the second or third day, so a few days before and after arrival, it is best to take only light meals, especially at night.
After arrival, you should eat carbohydrates, such as rice, oats, and potatoes, rather than fatty foods. You may do well to pay attention to the advice. “Eat breakfast like a king, but eat supper like a beggar.”
Also, avoid physical exertion, as it can bring on a bad attack of mountain sickness. Perhaps because young people tend to disregard this advice, they are often the ones who suffer most.
“Slip on a hat, and slop on some sunscreen cream” is good advice here too, since there is less atmosphere to protect you from the dangerous rays of the sun.
Those rays can irritate or even damage your eyes, so use good sunglasses. The thin mountain air also dries up your tears, causing further eye irritation. The advice is to drink plenty of fluids.
Doctors have warned people who are seriously overweight or who have such conditions as high blood pressure, sickle-cell anemia, or heart or lung disease to have a careful medical evaluation before deciding on a trip above the clouds.
Some doctors prescribe acetazolamide to stimulate breathing at very high altitudes. Other drugs for mountain sickness are advertised, but not all doctors recommend them.
If you have a bad cold, bronchitis, or pneumonia, it may be wise to delay your trip, since high altitude together with a respiratory infection or heavy physical exercise can sometimes cause a dangerous buildup of fluid in the lungs.
Respiratory complaints can cause even lifelong highlanders.