Acclimate to altitude

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As ski season approaches people are often aware of the risk of physical injury, but altitude sickness is another concern that can sideline travelers to higher altitudes if they’re not careful.

Altitude sickness, or acute mountain illness, is a collection of symptoms that can occur when people travel to a higher elevation. Those at increased risk for altitude sickness are people who have had the illness before, or those not used to high altitudes and rapidly go from low altitude to 8,000 feet or higher, said Dr. Jasjot Johar, emergency physician at Banner McKee Medical Center in Loveland, Colorado.

“It happens when you can't get enough oxygen from the air at high altitudes,” said Dr. Johar.  “The body tries to compensate for decreased oxygen and there are many body systems that need to get involved. Some people will develop adverse symptoms from this adaptation.

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. Johar said. 

While altitude sickness could be mistaken for the flu, a hangover or dehydration, delayed recognition can lead to serious complications. 

There are steps to take that 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 and ascend slowly. 
  • Avoid large meals or alcohol and limit heavy activity immediately after arrival.
  • 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 every six hours during climbing helped to reduce altitude sickness.
  • Increased intake of carbohydrates can help. Higher fat meals and sedatives may make symptoms worse.
  • Prescription medications such as Diamox or dexamethasone can be prescribed by your physician to prevent or treat altitude illness. 
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