What Are the Effects of High Altitude?

As we gain altitude, the atmospheric pressure in the external environment drops, the amount of radiation we get exposed to increases and the amount of oxygen we breathe decreases. The temperature drops. These are the four most obvious effects of high altitude.

As the altitude increases, our body shows various reactions. These reactions are seen less or more in some bodies than in others. Let’s start the article by first explaining what high altitude means.

What is high altitude?

The altitude is calculated based on sea level. The high altitude is considered to be between 1524 meters and 3505 meters above sea level. Very high altitude is between 3505 meters and 5486 meters, and extreme altitude is 5486 meters and above.

Serious effects of high altitude on humans are generally observed after 2400 meters. From 1500 meters, effects such as short-term headaches and dry mouth are also seen, but these are mostly temporary.

Pressure at High Altitude

Atmospheric pressure is measured with a barometer and is also known as barometric pressure. Barometric pressure is the sum of the weight of atmospheric gases that exert pressure on the earth’s surface. This force is created by the attraction of molecules to the earth by gravity, and the atmospheric pressure decreases with the decreasing effect of gravity as the altitude increases. Since the weight of air molecules in the air is compressed, the pressure is higher at lower altitudes. However, at higher altitudes, there is less pressure and the molecules are more dispersed. Therefore, as the altitude increases, the pressure will decrease.

Low pressure at high altitudes can trigger various eye diseases, cardiovascular diseases and various ailments such as migraine.

Radiation at High Altitude

As the altitude increases every 1000 meters, the level of ultraviolet radiation in the environment increases by 12%. The negative effects of ultraviolet radiation on the body directly appear on the skin and eyes. Since almost all of us are closed at high altitudes, it is necessary to protect the exposed areas (face and hands) with high-factor sunscreen, and not to expose the eyes to harmful rays with sunglasses that filter UV rays and provide at least Cat 4 protection.

Another overlooked effect of radiation is heat loss. The primary culprit for hypothermia is radiation, which causes us to lose up to sixty per cent of our internal heat. Increasing radiation as we rise will further lower our core temperature. In other words, contrary to what is known, not only with cold and lack of oxygen at high altitudes; At the same time, we have to fight radiation.

Oxygen at High Altitude

The percentage of oxygen in the air at sea level is about 21%. Each breath provides less oxygen for the body, as the air molecules are more diffused as you rise.

  • A breath you take at 3657 meters contains 40% less oxygen than at sea level.
  • It means 50% less oxygen at 5486 meters.

It is very natural to experience shortness of breath due to a lack of oxygen at high altitudes in sports that require physical activity such as mountaineering and hiking.

Knowing how to breathe properly at high altitudes and consuming plenty of fluids is very important. High altitude triggers an increase in heart rate, respiration and urine. At low humidity and high altitude, the skin and lungs evaporate at a faster rate, and due to increased exertion, it is necessary to consume more fluids.

Due to the decrease in the amount of oxygen, while sleeping at a high altitude, breathing may sometimes stop and the person wakes up in a panic with a feeling of suffocation. Due to the low oxygen level environment, high breathing occurs as deep and frequent breathing to provide the necessary oxygen to the body.

Adaptation to Altitude (Acclimatization)

The most important external factor of mountain diseases that occur at high altitudes is climbing to higher altitudes faster than normal. At high altitudes, the process of change that occurs in the body so that the person can get used to the falling oxygen molecule level at the altitude reached is called “Altitude Adaptation” or acclimatization. This habituation period takes different times in people with different constitutions.

Changes that occur in the body during adaptation to high altitude (acclimatization);

  • high breathing
  • a high amount of urine
  • high rate heartbeat

The basic rules of adapting to height are as follows:

  • As far as possible, do not go over 2500 meters quickly with any vehicle. If you need to go higher, walk up from this altitude. If you have ascended quickly and suddenly, do not do exercises that require excessive effort for the first 15-20 hours from your altitude.
  • Keep the altitude you will ascend in one day low. Even though a normal mountaineer can gain an altitude of 1000 meters and higher in a day with a steady pace without difficulty, in a moderately loaded condition, a maximum of 400-600 meters should be gained per day for very high altitudes. For altitudes below 4500-5000 meters, no more than 1000 meters should be taken per day.
  • You should consider the wind chill effect at high altitudes.
  • After arriving at the campsite with a high-altitude climb, rise 300-400 meters and return to the campsite and sleep there. This movement is very useful for the body to get used to the high altitude.
  • If there are very simple high-altitude diseases, it is possible to climb for a short time, but if there are moderate mountain diseases, do not gain more altitude until the symptoms pass. In cases where the symptoms of the disease are exacerbated, the altitude should be reduced absolutely.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. Adding additives such as fruit mixes and fruit juice powder to the liquid you will take also helps to regulate the acid-base balance of the body. Before starting the final climb, approximately 1.5 litres of fluid should be taken. The hot fluid intake also reduces unnecessary energy loss from the body. If the urine colour is dark and the amount is low at your altitude, this indicates insufficient fluid intake and prevents you from adapting to high altitude. Your urine volume should be high and the colour should be light and clear.
  • In the first days of climbing to a high altitude, avoid activities that overwhelm the body. Engaging in light tasks is better than sleep, which slows breathing and reduces the amount of oxygen entering the body.
  • Drugs such as alcohol, cigarettes, sleeping pills and tranquillizers should never be used because they suppress breathing.
  • Energy insufficiency has various effects in the short and long term. At high altitudes, on days when you are very tired with heavy loads and especially at night, eat carbohydrates, which are easier to burn than proteins and fats. The low amount of oxygen consumption during its conversion into energy relaxes the body more than other nutrients, especially during digestion. But take protein and fatty foods on rest days, as not all of your daily calorie needs can be met from carbohydrates.


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