Could a test tell you if you’re a good candidate to hike Mt. Everest? Hiking to high altitudes can be risky for many reasons, but chief among them is how your body will respond to the reduced oxygen. Almost a third of hikers who trek above 2,500 meters shows signs of acute mountain sickness. And 1-2 percent develop life-threatening conditions.

Until now, though, there’s been no way of knowing which 30 percent of people will experience the headaches, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, loss of appetite and other symptoms of the illness. But today, a team of researchers is presenting a test that they say can identify those who will get acute mountain sickness.

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Right now, the test can only be conducted after four hours at high elevation. Future tests would hopefully identify someone at risk before they even reach Base Camp.

“Our results suggest that it is possible to identify vulnerable individuals and suggest particular behaviors and drugs only to this subgroup,” lead author Dr. Rosa Bruno said in a press release. “Thus we can limit drug use (and side effects) only to those who will really need them, and give them special advice and recommendations such as avoiding high altitudes or spending more time ascending to allow time for acclimatization.”

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The key proved to be combining two known physiological responses to altitude: oxygen saturation in the blood and the systolic function of the right ventricle. Separately measured, they didn’t predict who would get sick, but the combined results did.

“The test is very simple and quick: O2 saturation can be measured very easily by anyone, and a low-cost, portable ultrasound machine is sufficient for the (ventricle) measurement,” Bruno said. “Future steps will be to test whether a shorter length of stay and/or experimental hypoxia (induced in the lab by breathing air with a reduced content of O2 with a mask) are equally informative. If we obtain good results (in a larger population) with these further experiments, this easy test can be used in the very near future.”


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