Acclimating to High Altitude

Avoiding Altitude Sickness

I know that most folks like to scoff at the idea of there being such a thing as altitude sickness.  Somehow, it sounds made up and akin to leprechauns and snipe hunts.

But having lived in the mountains before, I can tell you that altitude sickness is actually very real. The folks that get it the worst are those that fly in from low elevation areas and then drive up into the mountains the same or next day. That’s a huge change for a person’s body to take, and if you’re not taking precautions, you might find that you’re really sorry.

Curiously, not everyone seems to suffer from it.  According to WebMD.com on the subject of high altitude sickness, the experts really have no idea why some people are affected, and others not.  It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with physical fitness, or gender even.  But if you’re exposed to this kind of altitude change, why take the risk of ruining your trip when it can so easily be prevented?

Altitude Sickness Symptoms:

  • headache
  • nausea
  • shortness of breath
  • rapid heart beat
  • dizziness
  • tiredness
  • inability to sleep
  • dehydration

People say that it feels similar to having a really bad hangover.  Like most things in life, it is far better to guard against it than to have to try to correct it.

What is high altitude sickness?

Here’s an excerpt from a helpful online pamphlet about high altitude travel that best explains it:

“So what’s different about travel at altitude? The main difference is that as you go higher the air pressure gets lower (the air gets ‘thinner’), and this means for any single breath that you take there will be less oxygen for your body. Oxygen is needed to give you the energy to move, but is also needed simply to keep your body alive – for your brain and digestion to work, for healing cuts, and all those normal things your body does without you knowing about it. As your body gets less oxygen it adapts. You breathe faster and deeper. It makes more red cells to carry more oxygen in the blood.”

See the link above also for specific advice for those with certain health conditions that can have severe reactions to altitude sickness, including those who suffer from:

  • asthma or other lung conditions
  • high blood pressure or heart conditions
  • epilepsy
  • diabetes

What can you do to prevent high altitude sickness?  First, pay attention to your body and take note of any reactions you may be having.  Take it easy.  Don’t do any strenuous exercise until you’ve adjusted.  Do light activities before taking on more aggressive physical activities.  Drink more water than usual and stay hydrated (this is key to avoiding the headaches and the hangover like feeling).  If you do find that you’re having extreme symptoms, get quickly to a lower altitude and contact a health professional.

As for us, with driving across the country, we experienced a fairly gradual change in elevation (at least until we got to Kansas/Colorado).  The drive from Denver up to Grand County was a different story, but at least we weren’t coming directly from sea level.

At 8,700 feet above sea level, the resort’s elevation was the highest that we’d ever called “home.”   We stayed hydrated and took it easy the first few weeks up there, so we dodged the high altitude sickness bullet.  Even still, we did notice that we (like all the other newcomers) were short of breath up there!

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