Staying Healthy In High Altitude
Updated: Jul 20
First things first, where are you headed?
You’ve gathered your gang, picked your destination, and booked your travel. Whether you’re hiking up Sunlight Peak or shredding down Breckenridge, your next step should be to do some research on the climate and altitude of your destination. Above 8,000 feet, altitude illness affects 20 to 30 percent of visitors from low elevations to some degree. At these levels the air is thinner and contains less oxygen. Here are a few precautionary measures you can take to stay on top of your health and enjoy your trip.
Step one: Research your destination.
You can visit veloroutes.org or sites like it to check the elevation of your destination. This is especially important if you live closer to sea level and have never traveled to high-altitude destinations. Knowing the altitude of your destination will help you determine the risk for Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS.)
Step two: Visit a doctor.
If after you’ve done research on your destination, you decide you could be at risk for altitude sickness, visit your doctor. They may offer you a prescription for Diamox (acetazolamide), which is used for altitude sickness prevention and treatment. This speeds up how fast your body gets used to the higher altitude. If you haven’t already, get a physical exam to make sure you are in good health overall. If you have existing conditions, ask your doctor about the risks and warnings correlated with high altitude.
Step three: Know the symptoms and risks.
AMS isn’t subjected to any age or gender and can even affect the most athletic people. The first thing most people notice is shortness of breath, especially when exercising. In addition, the heart is likely to beat faster and one may develop nausea, fatigue, dizziness, headache, loss of appetite, or have difficulty sleeping. Those with one or more of these symptoms may have AMS. This usually subsides in a day or two. If they do not, a doctor should be consulted.
Sunburn: It is very important to remember that a chance for severe sunburn increases at higher elevations. Again, this is because of decreased oxygen. For protection always wear sunscreen (preferably a protection factor of 15 or above), and proper eye gear or sunglasses that screen ultraviolet or infrared light. Improper eye protection can be worse than no protection at all.
Step four: Acclimate slowly. It can take anywhere from 1-3 days to get acclimated to higher elevations.
Upon arrival at the mountain, rest as much as possible.
Drink two to three times more water than usual.
Minimize caffeine intake and limit alcohol consumption for two or three days.
Limit salty foods and increase carbohydrate consumption. They allow you to use oxygen more efficiently and help maintain your energy levels.
Most importantly, listen to your body. Do not push the limits of your physical capabilities.
Step five: Know how to treat it. The best treatment for altitude sickness is to go to a lower altitude. But if you have mild symptoms, you may be able to stay at that altitude and let your body get used to it. Symptoms often occur if you have just arrived at a mountain resort from a lower altitude. You may also be able to use oxygen or a specially designed pressure chamber to treat altitude sickness. If you stay at a high altitude, rest. You can explore the area, but take it easy. Limit any walking or activity. Do not go to a higher altitude until your symptoms go away.
For the headache, you can take an over-the-counter medicine, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve). Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than 20. You may also use medicine to reduce feeling sick to your stomach or other symptoms.
Go to a lower altitude if your symptoms are moderate to severe, they get worse, or medicine or oxygen treatment does not help. Go down at least 1500 ft (457 m). Go to a lower altitude as fast as you can or get emergency help if someone with you has severe symptoms such as being confused or not being able to walk straight. Go with the person. Never let someone with severe altitude sickness go down alone.
Make the most out of your trip! Do your research and stay informed.
Written by: Hannah Victoria Bewley
(WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise.This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. High Point disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.)