Symptoms and treatment overview for heat exhaustion, heat stroke, hypothermia, hyponatremia, and altitude sickness – some of the common health issues that hikers need to be aware of.
Proper information and preparation will help avoid all of the following conditions.
Disclaimer: We are not doctors, trainers, or health professionals of any kind; this is simply a collection of resources for hikers. Sources are noted below.
- Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke – when the body overheats due to exercise
- Hypothermia – when core body temperature drops
- Hyponatremia – low concentration of sodium due to over hydration
- Altitude Sickness – typically experienced above 8,000 feet
Avoid both by staying hydrated; eat salty snacks, drink sports drinks or use electrolyte tablets in your water bladder to replace the salts lost by sweating.
|This condition often occurs when people exercise in a hot, humid place and body fluids are lost through sweating, causing the body to overheat. The person’s temperature may be elevated, but not above 104°F.||This medical condition is life-threatening. The person’s cooling system, which is controlled by the brain, stops working and the internal body temperature rises to the point where brain damage or damage to other internal organs may result (temperature may reach 105+°F).|
|Symptoms: thirst, heavy sweating, flushed moist and skin, rapid pulse, nausea, headache.||Symptoms: Unconscious or abnormal mental status: dizziness, confusion, hallucinations, coma; possibly hyperventilating, flushed hot and dry skin.|
|Treatment: Get out of the sun, remove restrictive clothing, spray with cool water, drink cool liquids (not alcohol or caffeine), rest.||Treatment: call 911 immediately. While waiting, treat as heat exhaustion but do not give liquids if the person can’t tolerate it, or is not in a normal mental state.|
Even in 55° weather, an unprepared hiker in windy/wet conditions can rapidly lose core heat. Make sure you have proper clothing layers, keep dry, and eat and drink regularly.
|When core body temperature drops below 95°F:||When core body temperature drops below 90°F.|
|Symptoms: shivering, loss of coordination, confusion, numbness, apathy||Symptoms: person becomes weak, lethargic, disorientated or confused, uncoordinated, stops shivering, muscle stiffening, unconsciousness|
|Treatment: Put on warm, dry layers; Drink hot fluids, eat food with fat/carbs; Once out of the cold, usually the person will be fine.||Treatment: Advanced hypothermia is a medical emergency: arrange for immediate evacuation then takes steps to keep them warm, remove wet clothing, move gently, quick movements could stop the heart; don’t offer food or drink; potential for choking.|
An abnormally low concentration of sodium in your blood due to over hydration. In high heat, make sure you eat high energy foods and supplement your water intake with salty snacks, add electrolytes to your water.
|Bloating and puffiness in the face and fingers, nausea, vomiting, muscle weakness, headache and disorientation.||Eat salty foods and hydrate with a sports drink containing sodium|
OK, ok, we realize that this isn’t an issue in New Jersey. Not even close – High Point is only at about 1800 feet. While it’s not much of a concern here, it’s something to be aware of if you like to travel and hike in areas of higher elevation (over 8,000 feet), such as some major parks on the West Coast.
The symptoms are akin to a hangover or flu, and you may not realize why you don’t feel well. Being aware of the symptoms and how to avoid it can prevent feeling ill unnecessarily on your vacation.
Try to acclimate a day or two when you arrive at elevation – You can explore the area, but take it easy. Limit any walking or activity. Avoid alcohol, drink plenty of fluids and eat carbs.
|Headache, appetite loss, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, trouble sleeping, and irritability – typically above 8,000 feet.||Drink plenty of water, eat carbs, take an ibuprofen (like Advil). Rest. Descending will improve your condition.|
|How to tell if a headache is due to altitude. Altitude headaches are usually nasty, persistent, and frequently there are other symptoms of AMS; they tend to be frontal (but may be anywhere), and may worsen with bending over.You can try a simple diagnostic/therapeutic test. Dehydration is a common cause of headache at altitude. Drink one liter of fluid, and take an analgesic. If the headache resolves quickly and totally (and you have no other symptoms of AMS) it is very unlikely to have been due to AMS.|
[Sources: WebMd: Overview of Altitude Sickness]
Altitude sickness can become severe and life threatening. See WebMD for more information on High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE).