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Altitude Sickness


Overview :

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.




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