Altitude sickness hits many visitors to the High Country
February 13, 2011
Most Summit County locals know to tell people with altitude sickness to drink lots of water, right? Well, most Summit County locals are wrong, according to Dr. David Gray, the High Altitude Mobile Physician.
Gray said most people in this county, especially those in the hospitality industry, recommend visitors drink lots of water when they’re feeling the effects of their visit to 9,600 feet. He said water is not an antidote, and often makes the patient feel worse. Gray said the only time water helps is when the person is also dehydrated. If the patient is already vomiting, the stomach will just reject it.
Gray, a former emergency room doctor from Texas, said 60 percent of his patients during ski season are being treated for altitude sickness. He said most people don’t know how to prevent, recognize and deal with the illness, and have a miserable time on vacation as a result.
Symptoms of altitude sickness include: difficulty sleeping, dizziness or light-headedness, fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting, rapid heart rate and shortness of breath with exertion.
Michaela Halcomb, infection preventionist at St. Anthony’s Medical Center, said 30 to 40 percent of visitors to Summit County can experience altitude sickness.
She said the hospital sees a fair amount of cases of altitude sickness during busy seasons.
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Gray noted that it’s not exactly a great marketing message for the High Country.
“If there were truth in advertising, it would be ‘Come to Summit County and get sick,'” Gray said.
Gray said all too often people become sick because they go up to altitude too fast.
“It’s a shock to the body,” he said.
When altitude is gained too fast, the body goes into “defense mode.” Because there is less oxygen at higher altitude – Gray said a room in Texas at sea level will have a million oxygen molecules, while a room at 9,600 feet will only have 750,000 – the body responds by breathing faster and deeper, and pumping the heart at a greater rate. The body tries to send more oxygen to the brain, heart and kidneys, which deprives the gut, muscles and bone. As a result, the stomach can’t function correctly, and the person experiences nausea and vomiting. Drinking water will only make it worse since the body can’t process it. If the sickness progresses, fluid can build up in the lungs or brain, and death is possible.
Gray said altitude sickness didn’t exist until modern times, since it used to take people weeks to travel from one place to another. Slow travel allowed people’s bodies adequate time to adjust to the thinning air.
“Altitude illness is a malady of modern travel,” he said.
In an ideal world, Gray said people would stay in Denver for a week before visiting Summit County. Because that’s rarely possible, he recommends potential High Country visitors see their doctors for a drug called Acetazolamide, or Diamox, which acidifies the blood and increases the amount of oxygen. Gray recommends patients start taking 125 milligrams a day, twice a day, two days before travel.
Mac Turner, an annual Summit County visitor, starts taking Diamox a few days before he travels up to altitude. An avid sailor, he used to experience altitude sickness and likened the symptoms to sea sickness. He said he experienced nausea, dry mouth, headaches and felt uncomfortably thirsty.
“I knew I had altitude sickness, but didn’t know how many symptoms were related,” he said.
Turner said the medicine causes vivid dreams and tingling of the fingers every now and then, but those side effects are minimal compared to his previous symptoms.
“If that’s the price I have to pay, then I’m happy to pay that price,” he said.
To help prevent altitude sickness, the hospital’s Halcomb recommends taking Diamox, avoiding alcohol, limiting caffeine, drinking plenty of fluids, eating carbohydrates and gradually ascending to altitude.
If a visitor is experiencing altitude sickness, Gray recommends oxygen, rest, an anti-inflammatory (if the person’s stomach can handle it) and seeing a doctor. He said he treats patients with oxygen and Decadron, a strong anti-inflammatory. Halcomb said that sometimes IV fluids and the descent to a lower altitude are necessary. Gray and Halcomb both recommend patients stay away from sleeping pills, which depress the respiratory system even more.