ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH: Dealing with Altitude Sickness

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Traveling around the United States, it is inevitable that you will find yourself changing elevations…sometimes quickly! About 15% of people get sick over 10,000’ and most of us experience some sort of reaction at higher elevations.

The lower the altitude is that you live at, the more at risk you are for High Altitude sickness or AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), and the more important it is to be aware of what elevation changes can mean for your health and well-being.

What happens when you ascend to a higher elevation?

            *The higher in elevation you go, the lower the amount of oxygen there is per lungful.  Oxygen to the brain, as well as all other organs and muscles, is diminished, which usually results in a headache.

            * With lower air pressure, water evaporates faster causing dehydration.

            * The air is thinner at higher altitudes which can make you cold.

            * At higher elevations you will naturally breathe faster to compensate for the new lack of oxygen, which can cause hyperventilation.

            * You will naturally urinate more at higher elevations.  If you don’t, then you are probably dehydrated.

            * Because of the disruption to oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in your blood, you might experience uneven or interrupted breathing – especially at night.

            * Your body will compensate by making more red blood cells to carry oxygen more efficiently, but that will take a few days, and in the meantime you may feel sick.  Here are some of the common signs of AMS:

  • fatigue
  • dizziness
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea or vomiting
  • confusion
  • difficulty walking (called gait ataxia)
  • rattling breath
  • feeling generally extremely ill
  • increased heart rate

How to avoid AMS:

            *Don’t assume that if you are in good shape that you are less susceptible to AMS

            *Stay HYDRATED. Plan 1 liter of water more than you normally take in each day.

         * Plan time to ascend slowly.  Stay below 7000’ for the first night and add about 1000’ each day as you ascend to higher elevations.

            * Stay away from alcohol.

            * Avoid strenuous exercise for the first 48 hours.

        * Keep high carb snacks handy. Carbohydrates and glucose are what your body needs most at high altitudes, so snack away!

 If you do get sick:

            * Head for a lower elevation

            * Drink lots of extra water

            * Eat Carbs

           * Check out medications for altitude sickness.  There are preventative meds as well as symptomatic meds.  There are also some natural ones like ginko biloba and coca leaves.  Talk to your doctor about meds if you know or think you might have a problem.

           * Be Very cautious with extreme reactions.  There are rare cases where AMS can be dangerous or even fatal.

           * Rest and take it easy.  It should pass in a few days.

Coming Down:

           Remember that descending is also hard on the body!

If you are heading to lower elevations from higher ones you must also be careful.  As your blood pressure normalizes and oxygen levels in the blood stabilize, changing to lower altitudes can cause Reverse Altitude Sickness giving you the same symptoms.  Follow the same preventative measures by going slow, taking it easy and drinking lots of water.


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