How to get rid of altitude sickness or avoid it altogether
June 12, 2018
Altitude sickness, or mountain sickness, as it's sometimes called, is what happens when you go up in elevation too quickly causing your body to prioritize what needs the air most. Common symptoms include headache, loss of appetite and trouble sleeping. Altitude sickness often occurs when people who are not used to being in the High Country travel quickly from a lower elevation to 8,000 feet or higher. While you might think the time spent on Interstate 70 getting here were long enough, your body might disagree.
You often hear folks say there's less oxygen to breathe at high elevations, which is mostly true — fact is, there's less of all of the components that make up the air. The percentage of oxygen, however, in high-altitude air is the same as that in sea-level air — about 21 percent.
However, your body has to work harder at high elevation to get the oxygen it needs, so it causes you to breathe faster. That, in turn, causes the headaches and other symptoms. As your body adapts, the symptoms go away.
Mild altitude sickness is common, and experts can't say who will get it because a person's level of physical fitness and gender don't determine who's affected and who isn't.
The best treatment is to go to a lower altitude, but if your symptoms are mild you can generally stay at high altitude and wait for the symptoms to go away. Just take it easy. Limit your activity and drink lots of water, but avoid alcohol and fatty foods.
You can take over-the-counter medications for headache and upset stomach, but don't try going up in elevation if you are already experiencing symptoms. Recovery from mild symptoms takes anywhere from 12 hours to three or four days.
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If you don't recover, or if your symptoms are severe, see a doctor. They may be able to get you on passive-flow oxygen, which will help to alleviate your symptoms while in the High Country.
As Dr. David Grey with Breckenridge's High Altitude Mobile Physicians noted, altitude sickness is a nighttime problem.
"If everyone who came to Summit went to Denver to sleep we wouldn't see altitude problems," he explained.
While that's a simple enough solution, it's not the most fun sounding vacation. When you venture up in altitude too quickly it causes a shock to your system and sends your body into defensive mode. When this happens your body conserves oxygen by sending less to the nonessentials like your gut, muscle and bone.
We all know vacation and gluttony go hand-and-hand so when your oxygen-deprived belly is met with all the wonderful food and drinks our fine county can offer and you head home to slip into a food coma, your body just gets worn out. Passive-flow oxygen, what you get by prescription, can be used throughout the night meaning you'll wake up in far better shape. Cans of oxygen, oxygen bars and the like just aren't available at that critical time.
However, altitude sickness can be avoided completely if you just do a little planning. Dr. Grey recommends working on your hydration long before you get to the mountains — at least a week — to make sure you're coming in the best shape possible. Just don't over do it: Once your urine is clear, you're in the clear.
Also, try coming up slowly. Maybe spend a couple days in Denver if you are coming from lower elevations, and once you do get here, give yourself a chance. Don't overindulge in those first couple days and work on keeping a steady, healthy diet. If you do find yourself struggling to overcome the effects of altitude sickness reach out to a local doctor to see about getting oxygen.
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