How to know when altitude sickness symptoms are mild or serious (Sponsored) |

How to know when altitude sickness symptoms are mild or serious (Sponsored)

By Lauren Glendenning

Brought to you by Hello Alvin

If you’ve just arrived in Summit County from sea level — or even just from Denver — you could be at risk for developing altitude sickness.

Acute mountain sickness is a fairly common ailment at over 9,000 feet with effects that can range from mild to extremely dangerous. It’s important to talk to a doctor about symptoms to determine whether a headache or other altitude sickness symptom such as nausea or vomiting could be signaling something more severe. Altitude sickness doesn’t discriminate — even extremely fit athletes can come down with the condition.

The body has various reactions to altitude. Mild cases can clear up on their own with rest and hydration, while extreme conditions can cause life-threatening illnesses such as high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE), in which the brain accumulates extra fluid, swells and stops working properly, according to Harvard Medical School. Other conditions include high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), which causes fluid to enter the lungs, and high-altitude retinal hemorrhage, which causes eye damage.

“High-altitude illness, especially HAPE and HACE, are very serious and can even result in death if not recognized and treated promptly,” says Dr. Charles W. Smith, Director of the Primary Care Service Line at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and a participating Hello Alvin physician, a service that offers members 24/7 physician access over the phone.

So, how do you know when a minor case of it becomes more serious? Here are some guidelines to consider.



At more than 9,000 feet, Summit County is considered a high-altitude environment where where air pressure is lower and there’s less oxygen in the air. Residents of Denver, which is almost half as high at 5,280 feet, also can experience altitude sickness symptoms in Summit County.

“Above 8,200 feet, individuals should asend no more than 600 meters (1,970 feet) in any 24-hour period. A rest day should precede further ascent,” Smith says. “Avoid strenuous activity prior to arrival and maintain adequate hydration throughout your stay at altitude.”

Symptoms of mild to moderate acute mountain sickness include difficulty sleeping, dizziness, fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting, rapid pulse and shortness of breath with exertion, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Symptoms of HAPE may include the aforementioned symptoms in addition to breathlessness, cough and chest pain. HACE symptoms add changes in consciousness, abnormalities of motor function and visual disturbances, Smith says.

Anyone who goes to a high altitude without giving the body time to adjust is at risk for developing altitude sickness, but there’s no way to determine who the condition might affect. Age, sex and general health do not seem to make a difference in risk for altitude sickness, according to the Cleveland Clinic. People with lung or heart disease should consider avoiding high altitudes, though.


What should you do?

A large proportion of illnesses and conditions that people go to emergency departments for turn out to be minor, according to a 2013 George Washington University study that appeared in the American Journal of Managed Care. This use of emergency departments for non-urgent conditions may also lead to excessive healthcare spending, unnecessary testing and treatment, and weaker patient-primary care provider relationships, the study says.

In roughly 10 minutes, you can have a medical doctor diagnose your condition over the phone before you have to fill out a bunch of paperwork and spend a lot of time in an urgent care or emergency department waiting room.

Joey Truscelli and Arif Razvi co-founded a service for consumers called Hello Alvin, which taps into the expertise of thousands of doctors like Smith through the telehealth services.

“If you’re traveling or you’re in an unfamiliar place, you don’t want to take half-a-day sitting in an emergency room or urgent care,” Razvi says. “Digital healthcare has advanced tremendously. You can see a doctor from your phone, 24 hours a day — even on the ski slope.”

Smith says that for a condition like altitude sickness, a diagnosis over the phone or video call would depend on the symptoms. If symptoms sound relatively mild, he would advise rest at the current altitude, as well as hydration, ibuprofen or Tylenol for headaches, and potentially acetazolamide.

“If symptoms of HAPE or HACE exist, I’d recommend retreat from altitude as soon as possible and initiation of medication,” Smith says. “These two conditions should result in hospitalization. Remember this: step, rest, treat, descend.”

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