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Wilderness Environ Med. 2007 Spring;18(1):45-7.

High-altitude cerebral edema with absence of headache.

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Department of Anaesthesia and Intensive Care, Hammerfest Hospital, Hammerfest, Norway.


Headache is the cardinal symptom of acute mountain sickness (AMS). The headache normally worsens, with increased cerebral affection and the development of high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE). A Norwegian expedition aimed to climb Baruntse (7129 m) in Nepal in 2003. At 5400 m a 35-year-old man felt exhausted. The next day he aborted his attempt at further climbing as a result of extreme fatigue. Over the next 24 hours he developed cough, dyspnea, and severe hypoxia before progressing to ataxia and blurred vision. At no point did he experience headache or nausea. The patient was evacuated by helicopter. He improved immediately after descent and recovered completely within a week. The speed of progression from AMS to HACE varies. Abrupt onset of HACE is occasionally reported. High-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) may induce severe hypoxia that can lead to rapid development of HACE. High-altitude cerebral edema in the setting of HAPE was the most likely diagnosis despite the unusual lack of headache. Rapid onset of HAPE with subsequent severe desaturation should raise awareness of the development of HACE, even in the absence of headache.

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