High altitude illnesses can occur when individuals trek to the higher elevations around the world finding themselves in an environment that is not supportive of human life. We have the ability to adapt, or acclimatize, to higher elevations if, we give our bodies time to adapt. Therein lays the problem—it takes time for our human physiology to make appropriate adjustments so that we may survive and thrive in higher and higher environs.
A simple example is a climb up Mount Everest to its summit at 29,035’ (8,850m). By slowly walking from sea level (1 atmosphere) to 29,035’ (1/3 atmosphere), your body has time to acclimatize to that altitude and extract enough oxygen out of the rarified air to survive. However, if you flew to the same altitude of 29,035’ and then decompressed the plane to that altitude, you would be unconscious within 2 – 3 minutes and dead within 8-10 minutes.
November/December 2006 ISSN-1059-6518 Volume 19 Number 6