RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Just like adults, children and teens may suffer from acute mountain sickness if they zip to high-altitude destinations too quickly. But a new study published in the journal Pediatrics suggests that otherwise healthy children’s symptoms are usually mild and don’t require pharmaceutical treatment.
THE DETAILS: Swiss researchers monitored 48 healthy children and teens who had never lived or vacationed at high altitudes before, and kept an eye on their symptoms for 42 hours after they traveled by train to a mountaintop research center more than 11,300 feet above sea level. About 40% of the children suffered mild acute mountain sickness, a complication of rising to high altitudes with reduced air pressure and a lower concentration of oxygen. The main symptoms are headache, dizziness, loss of appetite, nausea, and fatigue. About 65% of those ill felt sick within the first few hours of arrival, with most suffering from headaches; symptoms tapered off in the next 2 days, and only 5 needed medicine to relieve headaches.
WHAT IT MEANS: While the condition isn’t usually serious, the discomforts of altitude sickness could make the early days of a family vacation miserable. Luckily, there are steps you can take for a smooth transition to higher elevations:
• Stretch out the rise. If possible, don’t hop on a train and shoot straight to the top of a mountain. “The best preparation would be, if feasible, to spend a few nights at an altitude of 2,000 to 2,500 meters [6,561 to 8,202 feet] before reaching your mountaintop destination,” says study coauthor Urs Scherrer, professor of medicine at University Hospital’s Botnar Center for Extreme Medicine in Lausanne, Switzerland.
• Aim for clear. Making diet changes before your trip probably won’t make a difference, but once you’re at your destination, load up on liquids. “The aim should be clear urine three to four times a day,” says Scherrer.
• Schedule some rest time. Consider making day one of your trip a time to rest and relax instead of scheduling strenuous activities. “If a child does become sick, rest is the best treatment,” Scherrer says. “The problem usually does solve itself.”
• Know when you need medical attention. While none of the children in the study had to be evacuated to lower altitudes for more serious medical problems, it’s important to know that some symptoms signal a need for immediate medical attention. Severe sleepiness, confusion, or loss of muscle coordination (trouble walking or talking, for example) could be symptoms of high-altitude cerebral edema. Difficulty breathing while resting, a moist cough, fever, and severe weakness could be symptoms of high-altitude pulmonary edema. Both conditions are rare between 6,300 and 9,700 feet, but more likely at 14,000 on up. Parents should also seek medical attention if their children experience moderate to severe acute mountain sickness (moderate to severe headache with marked nausea, insomnia, and extreme sleepiness) for more than 24 hours, Scherrer says.
Published on: January 14, 2009
Updated on: May 13, 2010