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Altitude Sickness

What it is and how you can lessen its symptoms


The higher you go, the thinner air becomes. People living at sea level are used to the oxygen-rich air they breathe. So when adventurers head for the mountains for a ski vacation or backpacking trip, the thinner air and changes in pressure can sometimes cause health problems. Usually presenting itself at elevations of 8,000 ft. and above, altitude sickness, or acute mountain sickness (AMS) is caused by ascending too high too fast.


Altitude sickness can affect people of all fitness levels, ages and genders. There are varying degrees of altitude sickness. Mild symptoms feel like a bad hangover and are more of an inconvenience than a serious health threat. A nagging headache, general malaise, shortness of breath and nausea are commonly reported. Extreme cases of AMS include fluid in the lungs and swelling of the brain. Confusion and vomiting are indications of more severe sickness and victims should descend to a lower altitude and seek medical attention immediately. Some drugs, such as Diamox, can alleviate symptoms, but the only true cure is to descend to lower elevations.


The best way to avoid altitude sickness is to ease into your high elevation activities. Dr. Bruce Johnson of the Mayo Clinic is currently studying the physiology of altitude sickness and says, “ The body adapts as blood cells increase and alter their affinity to grab oxygen better and unload it to the tissues. But this can take time.” So w hile you may only have a long weekend for your trip, it’s worth taking the first day or two to allow your body to get used to its new, oxygen depleted environment before strapping on your climbing skins or harness. A new study finds that Vitamin E may offer some benefits to those at high altitudes. Further research is needed, but why not throw a bottle of vitamins in your suitcase? You can’t have too many antioxidants!


The nature of a ski vacation is riding lifts that carry you to several thousand feet high elevations quickly, and you obviously cannot spend your days in the lodge. And if you’re trying to reach the summit of Machu Picchu, you don’t have time to sit around nursing a headache. So before you head out, make sure you are thoroughly hydrated, avoid alcohol and caffeinated beverages, try not to overexert yourself and cross your fingers that you don’t become one of the unlucky travelers that is stricken with altitude sickness. Good luck and remember, “climb high, sleep low!”

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