Acclimate to altitude


Every fall we travel to Telluride, CO to visit family and enjoy an annual music festival. We usually drive from Phoenix, so the eight-or-so-hour trip allows me to acclimate to the change in altitude.

But this past winter made an extra trip. We flew. And I got sick. Altitude sick.

When we arrived I scoffed at the expensive canned oxygen in the hotel room minibar. But soon I could barely catch my breath, my head was pounding, I was tired and I felt nauseous. Let’s just say it wasn’t a good way to start a snowboarding trip. In fact, a very nice snowboard instructor escorted me off the mountain because I wasn’t looking so hot. It was humbling.

Altitude sickness wasn’t something I had ever experienced before, and so this low-land desert dweller was a bit apprehensive heading back to 8,750 feet again this fall. As we were packing for this year’s voyage, I looked into it a little more, wondering if history was doomed to repeat itself.

Sue Meyer, MD, an internal medicine specialist in Loveland, CO gave me all the important details.

“Altitude sickness happens when you can’t get enough oxygen from the air at high altitudes,” Dr. Meyer said. “People who are not used to high altitudes, and go quickly from low altitude to 8,000 feet or higher, can develop symptoms of high altitude sickness or acute mountain illness.”

People at increased risk for altitude sickness are those who have had the illness before, or who live at sea level, and then travel to a higher altitude – like me from Phoenix.

Altitude sickness symptoms can impact the lungs, nervous system, muscles and heart and can cause symptoms such as:

  • Throbbing headache that can worsen at night and early morning
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Shortness of breath with exertion
  • Rapid pulse
  • Low energy
  • Dizziness

More severe symptoms include cyanosis (blue color to the skin), chest tightness, coughing up blood, confusion, decreased consciousness, ataxia (not being able to walk in a straight line) and shortness of breath at rest, Dr. Meyer said.

While altitude sickness could be mistaken for the flu, a hangover or dehydration, there are steps you can take to help prevent it:

  • Don’t travel altitudes greater than 8,000 feet at once. Try to spend a night at a medium altitude.
  • Don’t fly into high altitudes cities. Avoid large meals, alcohol, being very active at arrival, and increase fluids.
  • Sleep at altitude lower than where you were during the day.
  • One study showed taking ibuprofen six hours prior to climbing to a higher altitude and again six hours during climbing helped to prevent altitude sickness.
  • Increased intake of carbohydrates can help.
  • Taking prescription medications such as Diamox or dexamethasone can also prevent.

This time around, we took the trip slow and stopped off in Flagstaff the first night. My water bottle and I were inseparable. It pays to be better prepared. In fact, this trip I managed to climb to the top of Colorado’s tallest free-falling waterfall – Bridal Veil Falls. It would have been terrible to miss out on something so beautiful for something so miserable as altitude sickness.

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