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Altitude sickness is a general term encompassing a spectrum of disorders that occur at higher altitudes. Since the severity of symptoms varies with altitude, it is important to understand the range of the different altitudes that may be involved. High altitude is defined as height greater than 8, 000 feet (2, 438 m); medium altitude is defined as height between 5, 000 and 8, 000 feet (1, 524–2, 438 m); and extreme altitude is defined as height greater than 19, 000 feet (5, 791 m). The majority of healthy individuals suffer from altitude sickness when they reach very high altitudes. In addition, about 20% of people ascending above 9, 000 (2, 743 m) feet in one day will develop altitude sickness. Children under six years and women in the premenstrual part of their cycles may be more vulnerable. Individuals with preexisting medical conditions—even a minor respiratory infection—may become sick at more moderate altitudes.
There are three major clinical syndromes that fall under the heading of altitude sickness: acute mountain sickness (AMS), high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), and high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE). These syndromes are not separate, individual syndromes as much as they are a continuum of severity, all resulting from a decrease in oxygen in the air. AMS is the mildest, and the other two represent severe, life-threatening forms of altitude sickness.
Altitude sickness occurs because the partial pressure of oxygen decreases with altitude. (Partial pressure is a term applied to gases that is similar to the way the term concentration is applied to liquid solutions.) For instance, at 18, 000 feet (5, 486 m) the partial pressure of oxygen drops to one-half its value at sea level and, therefore, there is a substantially lower amount of oxygen available for the individual to inhale. This is known as hypoxia. Furthermore, since there is less oxygen to inhale, less oxygen reaches the blood. This is known as hypoxemia. These two conditions are the major factors that form the basis for all the medical problems associated with altitude sickness.
As a person becomes hypoxemic, his natural response is to breathe more rapidly (hyperventilate). This is the body's attempt to bring in more oxygen at a rapid rate. This attempt at alleviating the effects of the hypoxia at higher altitudes is known as acclimatization, and it occurs during the first few days. Acclimatization is a response that occurs in individuals who travel from lower to higher altitudes. There are groups of people who have lived at high altitudes (for example, in the Himalayan and Andes mountains) for generations, and they are simply accustomed to living at such altitudes, perhaps through a genetic ability.
Author Info: Kapil Gupta MD, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 2002This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your healthcare provider. Please consult a healthcare professional with any health concerns you may have.
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