I will be going above 15000 feet (4500 meters) on a trip next month, and I've heard people will often get altitude sickness. Is there anything I can do beforehand to prevent sickness or take while I'm there that will help me.
Are you going to be hiking that high, or in a car for a small bit? Going to 15,000 feet without ever having broken 10,000 feet sounds a bit haphazard, especially if you're unsure of the dangers/how to deal with them.
There are several things you can do to help yourself out before your trip.
First, acclimate. Don't just run up to 15,000 feet. Try to spend time at 8,000 feet, 9,000 feet, 10,000 feet and so forth. Additionally, climb high, sleep low always applies. If you're not feeling well, descend, it's the only way you're going to feel better.
From a chemical perspective, diamox can be prescribed by your doctor to help with acclimatization. I've used it above 13,000 feet and it's greatly helped.
Stay hydrated, you rapidly lose hydration at altitude. Tea is your friend, so bring a good amount of it.
Last time I was at 18,000 feet, we chewed ginger root and it helped to some degree.
The best thing you can do is acclimatize. This means you should adjust your body gradually to the height. This can be done, for example, by increasing the height you're staying at from day to day. Another very important fact that is widely used by mountaineers is that you should always sleeps some meters below the highest point of the day. So for example, you reach the height of 4000 meters, where you plan to spend the night. Before going to sleep you should if possible gain another 200 - 300 meters, spend some time there, then go down and sleep at 4000 meters.
A lot of mountaineers also use Acetazolamid (Diamox), which can be taken as a preventative. But its use is discussed controversially because it has a lot of side effects.
Additionally to that you should drink a lot, but no alcohol, and you should also take care of your nutrition. It is very important that you force yourself to not use a lot of power. (This is particularly important when climbing a high mountain. You have to force yourself to walk slowly enough). If you feel slight symptoms it isn't necessary to do anything, but if it gets worse you should go down to lower altitudes as soon as possible. If it is really bad, you should immediately seek medical help, because it can kill you.
Here is a reliable medical source of the causes, symptoms and advised medical responses for altitude sickness of varying degrees. Cleveland Clinic - Altitude Sickness information
Altitude Sickness Explanation
Altitude sickness can affect anyone who goes to high altitudes without giving the body time to adjust to the changes in air pressure and oxygen level. High altitude is defined as 8,000 - 12,000 feet above sea level. Very high altitude is 12,000 - 18,000 feet, and altitudes above 18,000 feet are considered extremely high altitude.
The more rapidly a climb to high altitude, the more likely that altitude sickness will develop. Altitude sickness also is more likely to develop when climbs are more difficult and take more energy, compared with a slow and easy climb.
Guidelines For Proper Acclimatization
If possible, start below 10,000 feet and walk to high altitude instead of driving or flying. If you must fly or drive to an altitude over 10,000 feet, stay at your first stop for 24 hours before going higher.
When hiking or climbing above 10,000 feet increase your altitude by no more than 1,000 feet a day and build a rest day into your schedule for every 3,000 feet gained. Remember, “Climb high and sleep low,” meaning if you climb more than 1,000 feet in a day, come down to sleep at a lower altitude.
Always move to a lower altitude if symptoms of altitude sickness develop.
Drink at least 3 to 4 quarts of water per day.
Avoid tobacco, alcohol and other depressant drugs, including barbiturates, tranquilizers and sleeping pills.
While at a high altitude, eat a diet that includes more than 70% carbohydrates.
Climbing experts recommend taking along enough tanks of oxygen to last for several days when traveling above 10,000 feet. Individuals at risk for developing low levels of oxygen in the blood (anemia) should ask their doctor about taking an iron supplement to help maintain blood oxygen levels.
It is very important to know the symptoms of altitude sickness so that treatment can be started early while the illness is still mild.
The best way to prevent altitude sickness is by acclimatization. This is a process that allows your body time to adapt to the change in oxygen concentration at a higher altitude. In general, this means climbing to a higher level at a slow pace.
Changes that occur in the body that help it acclimate to a higher elevation include:
Higher pressure in the lung arteries so more lung space is used to help breathe
Making more red blood cells to carry more oxygen to the body
Increasing the amount of oxygen released from the blood to the body tissues
For all stages of altitude sickness, the main treatment is to go down to a lower altitude as quickly and safely as possible. For mild altitude sickness, over-the-counter medicines should relieve headache. Other symptoms will go away quickly at a lower altitude.
Symptoms of moderate altitude sickness usually improve in 24 hours at an elevation that is at least 1,000 to 2,000 feet lower. Symptoms should go away completely within 3 days.
People who have severe altitude sickness must be taken to a lower elevation (no higher than 4,000 feet) immediately. They must be seen by a doctor as soon as possible. Hospital care may be needed.
Some highly skilled climbers and hikers may carry a portable oxygen chamber, also called a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, with them as part of their standard high-altitude gear. The “chamber” is a body bag that is pumped full of air. Inflating the bag increases the oxygen concentration allowing the person in the bag with altitude sickness to breathe in more oxygen.
Acetazolamide is a prescription drug that increases a person’s breathing rate so that more oxygen is taken in. It helps the body adjust to higher altitudes more quickly and reduces minor symptoms of altitude sickness.
Dexamethasone is also a prescription drug that is sometimes used to prevent altitude sickness.