An Altitude Adjustment

Going skiing for winter break? Mountains are my favorite destination, but…please remember that the high altitude can come with a couple medical challenges. First of all, don’t be fooled that cool weather means no sunburns! Check out this blog on sunscreen so you don’t end up with a high altitude burn. Secondly, be aware of signs and symptoms of “mountain sickness” (aka. altitude sickness).

HOW HIGH do you have to be for altitude sickness?
There is not a set elevation for typical mountain vacations that affects everyone. Symptoms are uncommon at altitudes below 5000 feet above sea level, and fairly common above 8000 feet. If you fly to a higher elevation (such as above 8000 feet), wait a day to acclimate before you start hiking the high peaks nearby.

When does it start?
Symptoms usually within the first 24 hours, and often as early as the first few hours after arrival.
What are the common signs?
  • Mild to moderate: HEADACHE, decreased appetite or nausea, insomnia, and lightheadedness
  • Severe:  All of the above plus vomiting and shortness of breath
Treatment?
Ultimately, going to a lower elevation will relieve symptoms, but rest and hydration will alleviate most mild symptoms. For persistent or worsening symptoms, head to a clinic for possible oxygen and medications.
PREVENTION:
  • Hydration and avoidance of diuretics like CAFFEINE and ALCOHOL, especially the first few days.
  • SLOW ASCENT if possible (driving up to the mountains is lower risk than flying).
  • If you have had altitude sickness previously, especially if it has occurred on multiple trips to the same elevation, see your doctor and consider prophylactic medications (acetazolamide or steroids).
BOTTOM LINE: Don’t let the mountains literally take your breath away- plan ahead to prevent altitude sickness!

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