Fact or Fable #3: Altitude Sickness & Children

Altitude Sickness & Children

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Many parents in 2020 still fear that you will not be able to undertake mountain tours at high altitudes with young children (under eight years of age) because the danger of altitude sickness is always lurking. But is that “fear” based on facts or is it a persistent myth?

 

In April 2007 we already wrote about this subject. In the book “How do I stay healthy”, the author could not give a conclusive answer to that question for the simple reason that there was too little research available. Now, thirteen years later, extensive testing of altitude sickness specifically in young children has still not been done. Thorough research is also logistically difficult to carry out because not only children but also parents must be involved. Remco Berendsen, an anesthesiologist at the LUMC and member of the medical committee of the Dutch Climbing and Mountain Sports Association NKBV, did publish an article in 2008 that offers a little more guidance.

 

The crucial role of parents

Berendsen states that “as far as is known, children do not have a greater risk of contracting acute altitude sickness than adults.” The problem with young children, Berendsen continues, is that they themselves cannot properly indicate what is wrong. This certainly applies to children under the age of three. But the complaints of children up to the age of eight are not always completely reliable. Parents play a crucial role because they must be able to distinguish the symptoms of altitude sickness themselves. Those symptoms are lethargy, whining, listlessness, bad food, and bad sleep. Altitude sickness cannot always be prevented, but there are a few important rules that can reduce the risk: drink a lot (for parents: use little or no alcohol and be careful with coffee), walk slowly, and take sufficient breaks.

There are safe medications on the market, especially for kids.

Not higher than 3000 meters or 10.000 feet

We also got Remco Berendsen on the phone ourselves. In that conversation, he comes up with an interesting addition to his article. “You can assume that if you or another adult experiences symptoms of altitude sickness, so will your children. It is then very important to respond immediately because if you are no longer alert, you cannot help your child. “

Berendsen wants to issue a clear warning for very young children (younger than three months). “The lungs of very young children are not yet fully loadable. Then it is better not to take any risks and not go higher than 3000/10000 meters/feet into the mountains. I really don’t recommend that. “

 

Safe ‘sleeping height difference’ for hut tours

As with adults, says Berendsen, it is very important for children to acclimatize quietly in the mountains, ie to get their body used to the thinner air. Starting at an altitude between 2200/7200 and 2500/8200 meters/feet is a safe option. In addition, a safe “sleeping height difference” of 300/1000 meters/feet is recommended for parents who want to take a multi-day hut tour. This means: on day 1, for example, you sleep at 1800/5900 meters/feet, on day 2 at 2100/6900 meters/feet, etc. Avoid using a lift or cable car, because then your body cannot get used to the changing height.

On the website of the UIAA (The International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation), we find the following general (!) Rule for parents who want to take their (young) children into the mountains for several days and spend the night in huts:

Although there are no conclusive scientific data on the matter with young children, it is generally recommended not to ascend to a sleeping altitude of higher than 3,000/10000 to 4,000/13100 m/f with a preschool child, and to prefer a sleeping altitude of <2,500/8200m/f.

 

Check the temperature of the hands and feet

Berendsen gives another recommendation in his article, which he endorses in the telephone conversation. “In addition to the height, children are also extra sensitive to cold. Be especially careful with very young children who are transported in a back carrier. Regularly check the temperature of your hands and feet. Also, be careful with the intensity of the sun, children under the age of 4 get sunburned very easily. “

 

Conclusion

Fact. Provided you as a parent are alert and acclimatize calmly, it is responsible to go into the mountains with very young children (older than three months) and climb above 3000/10.000 meters/feet.

If you would like to read more about altitude sickness, you will find a very extensive and interesting article about the development of altitude sickness, its prevention, and possible treatment on the NCBI website.

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