You must have heard stories of altitude sickness that xyz suffered at Khardung La or at Chang La and are worried whether you can actually ride at high altitude. Fear not. We explain you what AMS is all about.

The points that we will be covering are:

What is altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness is also known as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). It is a pathological effect of high altitude on humans, caused by low partial pressure of oxygen at high altitude. People suffering from AMS feel the symptoms like flu, dizziness or a hangover.

There are actually 3 types of Altitude sickness.

  • Acute Altitude / Mountain Sickness
  • High-altitude pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and
  • High-altitude cerebral Edema

High-altitude cerebral edema and high-altitude pulmonary edema mostly occur at very high-altitude. So these two types of sickness is observed more in mountaineers than riders. However, they may occur in some people at high-altitude.  This article being motorcycle rider oriented article, we will focus only on the first type i.e. Acute Altitude or Mountain Sickness.

How high do you have to be to get altitude sickness?

It commonly occurs above 2,400 meters (8,000 feet). It is hard to determine who will be affected by altitude sickness, as there are no specific factors that correlate with a susceptibility to altitude sickness. However, most people can ascend to 2,400 meters (8,000 ft.) without difficulty.

What Causes Mountain Sickness?

As you keep going to higher altitude, the air gets thinner and naturally oxygen available is less than what you would have at lower altitude. The percentage of oxygen in air, at 21%, remains almost unchanged up to 21,000 meters (69,000 ft.).

How fast you gain height, the altitude you attain, amount of physical activity you do at that height etc. decide how severe the High Altitude Sickness can be.

Dehydration due to the higher rate of water vapor lost from the lungs at higher altitudes may contribute to the symptoms of altitude sickness. And an undefined factory Individual Susceptibility decides whether you will get AMS or not.

There is no set formula about who would suffer from it and who won't. It has nothing to do with your overall physical fitness.

Altitude sickness usually occurs when you gain altitude rapidly and stay at higher altitude. It also hits in case Overexertion within 24 hours of gaining height or inadequate liquid intake. You can mostly prevent AMS from occurring by spending less time on height. Remember the mantra that all serious mountaineers follow

Climb High, Sleep Low

In simple words, this means that you should take your time in increasing the height you sleep in. Do not rush. Your body takes some time to adapt to lower oxygen at high altitude (acclimatize). Give it time to adjust.

What are the signs and symptoms of AMS?

People have different susceptibilities to altitude sickness; for some otherwise healthy people, acute altitude sickness can begin to appear even at around 2000 meters (6,500 ft.) above sea level. But most of the people who suffer AMS start showing symptoms around 2,400 meters (8,000 feet). Major Symptoms of mountain sickness are-

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Stomach illness
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Decreased appetite and
  • Insomnia / Inability to sleep.

This is the most frequent type of altitude sickness encountered by motorcycle riders. Symptoms often manifest themselves six to ten hours after ascent and generally subside in one to two days, but they occasionally develop into the more serious conditions.

The first sign of AMS is shortness of breath even while resting or wet cough. Don't waste any time hoping for a miracle. Start going to lower altitude immediately. Your ride is not more important than your life.

How to prevent Altitude Sickness?

ride plan for leh spiti

Like we mentioned earlier, Acute Mountain Sickness (Altitude sickness) happens mostly after a rapid ascent and can usually be prevented by ascending slowly. Take your time, let your body acclimatize to the air. In most of these cases, the symptoms are temporary and usually reduce as your body acclimatizes to the altitude.

Let us give you an example, you reach Leh. Its height is 3500 mtr. (10,000 ft) from sea level. Don't rush to Pangong Lake on the next day. Pangong is situated at a height of about 4,350 m (14,270 ft.). Spend a day or two in Leh itself without any/much physical exertion. Let your body get used to the height. Then go towards Pangong Tso.

In extreme cases, altitude sickness can be fatal. So do not take it lightly.

The best ways to prevent altitude sickness are climbing slowly, stopping for 24 hours during the climb to allow the body to adjust to the new height, and taking it easy the first 1 to 2 days.

Treating Altitude Sickness

If the symptoms are severe, consult a doctor immediately. If the sickness is mild, the steps for treating Altitude sickness are simple:

  • Rest where you are.
  • Do not ride higher for at least 24-48 hours.
  • If you have a headache, take ibuprofen or paracetamol.
  • Make sure you're drinking enough water.
  • Avoid alcohol and smoking.
  • Avoid exercise.

If the symptoms persist, go to a lower height and rest for at least 24 hours.

Altitude sickness medicine

In addition to the precautions mentioned earlier, there is a medical solution. A Medicine named Diamox (medically known as Acetazolamide).

Diamox is used to prevent and reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness. This medication can decrease headache, tiredness, nausea, dizziness, and shortness of breath that can occur when you climb quickly to high altitudes (generally above 10,000 feet/3,048 meters). It is particularly useful in situations when you cannot make a slow ascent.

Note : Any Medicine should be used only after doctor's advice.

How to use Diamox: To prevent altitude sickness, start taking Diamox 1 to 2 days before you expect to reach height of 8000ft. Continue taking it while you are riding in high altitude and for at least 48 hours after you have reached your final altitude.

You may need to continue taking this medication while staying at the high altitude to control your symptoms. If you develop severe altitude sickness, it is important that you ride to a lower altitude as quickly as possible. 

Dosage: Take one 125 mg tablet twice a day after crossing 10,000 ft. height 

Swallow the long-acting capsules whole. Do not open, break, or chew the capsules. Doing so can destroy the long action of the drug and may increase side effects. Diamox may be taken with or without food. Drink plenty of fluids.

Possible Side effect: numbness, ringing in the ears, loss of appetite, vomiting, and sleepiness. It is not recommended in those with significant kidney problems, liver problems, or who are allergic to sulfonamides.

Note : Google is a search engine and not a doctor. Consult a doctor first before taking any medicine.

Following is List of medicines to carry while riding at high altitude:

list of medicines for high altitude tour

  • Dimox – Take one 125 mg tablet twice a day after crossing 10,000 ft. height. Possible Side effects- numbness, ringing in the ears, loss of appetite, vomiting, and sleepiness. It is not recommended in those with significant kidney problems, liver problems, or who are allergic to sulfonamides.
  • Combiflam – max. dosage – 1 tablet 3times a day. To be taken after eating food. Not to be taken on empty stomach.
  • DomstalMT– 5 / 10 mg to be kept under tongue for prevention of nausea and vomiting. Max. dosage – 1 tablet 3 times a day
  • Enterogermina–Zenica Astra – 5 ml plastic vial to be drank with 1 half glass of water and to be repeated once after 48 hours. Prevents travellers’ diarrhoea.
  • Decdan– this is a steroid. Only to be used for prevention of severe headache, vomiting due to high altitude sickness.
  • Levocet–5 mg – Anti Allergic – 1 tablet to be taken if suffering from any allergy.
  • Sunscreen– Min 30 SPF required
  • Rablet–20 mg – reduces acidity. People are unable to eat due to high altitude so highchances of acidity.
  • Chlorine drops– to purifying water. (can be skipped if you don’t intend to do camping)
  • Becosul Z– Multivitamine tablet – one to be taken by everyone every night.
  • Xplode –Emcure – energy drink – sachet of 40-50 ml to be added to 450 ml water. Gives enough calories for a day.

Note : Medicines should be used only after doctor's advice. We do not sell any medicines. This article is simply to help you understand the Acute Mountain Sickness and how to tackle it.

High altitude sickness guide

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Parting words: Take it easy, enjoy the nature, be cautious about your health and enjoy the ride.

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