Dehydration at a High Altitude: Symptoms, Causes, Precautions and Treatment while trekking

Dehydration at a High Altitude: Symptoms, Causes, Precautions and Treatment while trekking

Written by Sudoita Banerjee on 25-Feb-2022
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Sweet escape from the cacophony of traffic can be soothing. Nature sure does heal one from their core. But at the very same time, almost everything in this world has its own cons. While talking about the side effects of trekking/camping/hiking at high altitudes, dehydration is a common one.

What are the symptoms of dehydration at a high altitude? How much water should you intake to prevent them? How to treat it when you are at 8,000 feet above sea level? If you lack this knowledge, trekking at a high altitude can put your health at risk. If you are familiar only with trekking at a low altitude, then reading this article for you is a must.

Trekker having water while standing on a rock

Symptoms of Dehydration at High Altitude

These are some symptoms that may occur to warn you:

  1. 1. Frequent feeling of thirst
  2. 2. Stinking dark yellow urine
  3. 3. Dry, chapped lips (may even turn blue), mouth and eyes
  4. 4. Loss of energy
  5. 5. Dizziness
  6. 6. Rapid breathing
  7. 7. Muscle cramps
  8. 8. Frequent urine output
  9. 9. Headache, fatigue
  10. 10. Nausea
  11. 11. Weak pulse
  12. 12. Fever

Also Check: Effects of drinking and smoking at a high altitude

Even if the tiredness, shortness of breath with a mild headache isn’t “killing” you, don’t wait for it to grow severe. Take action, its better not to ignore the signs.

Causes of Dehydration at a High Altitude

So, why exactly do you need more water at high altitudes? Through daily life, some tend to avoid the symptoms of dehydration and might not even do something about it but dehydration while trekking at a high altitude can be critical. While climbing at such a high altitude causes dehydration much faster and escaping the consequences gets just more and more difficult. High altitude cause dehydration in these ways:

Lack of moisture:

Climbing higher and higher you can feel the temperature dropping (-1C at 8,200 feet above sea level). Now when the temperature drops, humidity does too. As a result, the air gets colder, drier and it will hold less and less moisture. The air starts absorbing more moisture from your body and due to lack of moisture the environment will fail to help you keep yourself hydrated.

Activities and difficulties:

Your activities and their difficulties mark how much water you need. It is known that the more you sweat the more you should intake water to keep yourself hydrated… well if you can feel yourself sweating. Because sometimes your body fails to alert you.If you are into activities like snowboarding or skiing you may know these can cause loss of fluids very easily through sweat without making you notice. This is because in dry air the sweat evaporates much quicker!

Temperature reducing your thirst:

On top of that, the change in temperature at a high altitude is found to reduce your sensation for thirst by 40% which results in the kidneys failing to store up enough fluid.

Frequent urine output:

Due to the lack of oxygen concentration at higher altitudes the body tries to make it up by rapid breathing. Now, this rapid breathing results in respiratory alkalosis which is basically when a low level of carbon dioxide in the blood is detected. To avoid that the kidney tries to suspend bicarbonate. That is why you urinate more frequently at higher altitudes (appx. 4,000 - 8,000 from sea level).

These can bring dehydration. Due to dehydration, your body starts facing difficulty to adapt to the low oxygen levels and hence altitude sickness will be encouraging. Altitude sickness starts to get risky from 8,200. Especially if you are used to living at a low altitude, have a heart condition, are pregnant, already have experienced altitude sickness.

How to Treat the Symptoms at High Altitude?

We are sure that you will hate to picture this but do: You and your friends are literally “chilling”(pun intended) at 8,200 feet above sea level, having a great time, and then one of you starts feeling dizzy, weak, short of breath, and a cruel headache (no pun intended). You will most definitely start panicking and you’re allowed to! What to do? How to put yourself together if you fail to find any kind of professional help?

You may have heard many consider eating snow as a process of rehydration. But in case of cold-related illnesses eating snow is obviously not a wise choice. Moreover, snow absorbs carcinogenic pollutants from the air. Consuming snow means you’ll consume all sorts of chemicals that will most definitely do harm to you.

Immediately look for water and a medecine:

If you start experiencing even 2-3 symptoms, drop whatever you are up to and immediately drink a whole litre of water. Well if not 1 litre then go for at least 600 ml. Then for killing for your headache you may go with a Disprin or any other headache medication. Give it an hour and see if your headache goes away. If it does, congratulations but if it doesn’t then you are most definitely struck by AMS. Informing your trek leaders is the best at this point.

Try drinking these:

Though tea isn’t exactly “hydrating”, your fatigue can be reduced by drinking a hot cup of tea. Many believe that coffee is a big no for trekking at high altitude. Good news for coffee lovers, this is a myth. Coffee stimulates your brain, kidneys and breathing, which will help the body acclimatise. An Electrolyte drink always comes in handy in these kinds of situations. Electrolytes are equal to minerals to rehydrate you and treat the symptoms of dehydration like nausea, cramps, etc.

A coffee mug with mountains in the backdrop

Health is always a first:

It may sound disappointing but you must know when to stop and it is always a must to prioritise your health. So when you start getting alarms and your body tries to warn you we suggest you draw the line and give it a try again when your body allows you to. Ignoring them can worsen your situation even more.

Avoid Dehydartion in the First Place!: How to avoid dehydration?

Well now that you know what altitude sickness can do to you, why let it occur in the first place? Sure you know how to treat the condition, but it’s far better if it doesn’t happen after all! Don’t let it reach you by doing these:

Increasing water intake:

A lot of people prefer to reduce their water intake while trekking to cut off the breaks to pee. This would have been smart if dehydration at higher altitudes than 3,000 feet wasn’t that critical after all. Unfortunately, due to the change in the weather, you can start experiencing dehydration even during the early days of your trip as your body takes a lot of time to acclimatise to the oxygen levels. Try to intake 4-6 litres of water every single day while being on the trip.

Trekkers having soup in a winter trek

It must be very alien to some of you and clearly, you will face the difficulty to intake that amount of water in a day. But practice makes it perfect! Try drinking this particular amount of water 10-20 days before you leave for your trip. Don’t go drinking gallons of water at once. Try to keep it to less than 600 ml each time you drink within 24 hours.

Adding hydrating snacks/meals:

Besides water, there are a whole lot of veggies and fruits in the form of healthy snacks that can keep you hydrated as they naturally contain a huge amount of water. Some of these include watermelon (92% water), apples (85% water), cucumber (95% water), spinach (91% water), and carrots (88.29% water). Also, chop some veggies and put them into liquid dishes like bowls of tasty soup, dal or curries!

Trekker holding a soup bowl

Always carrying a bottle of water:

Lastly, some periodical breaks won’t hurt. While performing the activities on your trip, no matter what the difficulty is, you should never keep your bottle away. Keep sipping your water little by little. While biking or climbing make sure you give your muscles some rest and body enough water. Additionally, at higher altitudes, even healthy people shouldn’t push themselves into doing it all at once. Achieve all your goals slowly and steadily.

Cutting on alcohol/hard drinks:

Hard drinks simply dehydrate you. Even if you don’t drink 2 to 3 bottles, one small peg can encourage all the symptoms of dehydration. Alcohol being diuretic, suspends the fluids from your blood real fast. This can happen through the renal system leading to more frequent urine output.

When you are trying to avoid dehydration by working hard on all the things mentioned above, do yourself a favour and don’t ruin all the work you have done. Put more layers.

Why Exactly Should You Avoid Alcohol at High Altitude?

Alcohol makes you lose heat:

Yes, you read that right. Whether you drink it to keep yourself warm or simply to enjoy, alcohol remains a bad idea. If you pick alcohol to reduce the cold, then stop immediately because it’s a misconception and alcohol fools you. On the contrary, it’s the opposite. Alcohol widens the blood vessels in your body and the blood can easily travel to the skin, making it pink or red. Because of the blood, we feel warm and comfortable.

This further makes your body lose heat which eventually makes you feel colder. it makes you lose more heat from the core which is not at all doable for camping or hiking at high altitudes. At high altitudes, you should precisely keep your body as warm as possible and alcohol does the exact opposite. It can encourage Hypothermia which gets very risky at high altitudes.

Alcohol leads to poor acclimatisation:

While trekking at a high altitude your body naturally makes you breathe deeply to inhale more oxygen to acclimatise to the low oxygen levels. Intoxication will disturb the senses and will make you breathe shorter and the body can poorly acclimatise. This will naturally increase the chances of AMS.

a group of friends toasting beer while on a trek

Alcohol dehydrates you:

Finally, as mentioned in the previous heading, alcohol dehydrates you and that is not what you want while trekking/camping at a high altitude.

So you better drink up more water and have a safe journey!

Written by Sudoita Banerjee on 25-Feb-2022
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