You’ve been planning this trip for months. You finally arrive at the mountain resort and spend a few moments enjoying the view before hauling suitcases into the lodge. As you begin to unpack, you start to feel strange: weak, lightheaded, tingly. You are suddenly very tired. And then the headache hits from nowhere, excruciatingly painful. As you lie down, your stomach begins to churn, and although you are exhausted, you can’t seem to sleep. You think perhaps you have caught a bug that abruptly manifested itself, or perhaps you have a migraine.
Or perhaps you have altitude sickness.
What is altitude sickness
Altitude sickness occurs when your body has trouble adjusting to the thin air. The most common symptom of altitude sickness is throbbing headache, but it is typically accompanied by at least one other symptom such as nausea and vomiting, fatigue, insomnia and dizziness. It may begin upon first reaching your destination or a day later.
When does it strike
Altitude sickness is something mountain climbers and hikers often encounter since the danger increases as the altitude does. But some people are affected as low as 6500 feet. Although this elevation may still sound high, Aspen, Colorado’s elevation is just under 8000.
Some people even claim to experience altitude sickness while flying. The cabin is typically pressurized to about 8000 feet, so such a connection is possible. (It is unlikely, however, since the trips are usually pretty short and travelers don’t tend to become drastically dehydrated or exert themselves.)
Your overall health and fitness level don’t typically contribute to your risk of getting altitude sickness.
How serious is it
Mild altitude sickness is common and will often abate as your body acclimatizes, anywhere from a few hours to about 12 from onset. If it doesn’t ease or is accompanied by neurological or pneumatic symptoms, the condition may be escalating. If you have difficulty breathing, trouble balancing or walking, or display abnormal levels of confusion, don’t wait for the condition to get better on its own.
If the body doesn’t adjust on its own and altitude sickness is not treated, it could develop into High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). With these conditions, fluids fill the lungs or brain, often resulting in death.
How do you treat mild altitude sickness
The best treatment is to descend. The richer air at lower altitude is usually enough to eliminate the problem. If you can’t leave or want to give your body time to adjust to the altitude, drink plenty of water and avoid vigorous activity. Regular OTC pain medications should help ease the headache.
If more serious symptoms present, of course, seek medical attention immediately. Many high-altitude towns and resorts have medical staff at the ready who are well-trained in altitude illnesses.
If you are headed for a high altitude area, be sure to drink lots of water as you prepare and once you have arrived. Don’t hike out on your own or do other strenuous activities until you know how you will react.
And don’t think you are immune if you are in good shape or have never experienced a problem before. According to Dr. Andrew Sutherland, 10% of the climbers on Mt. Everest lose their lives to some form of altitude sickness. Although the altitude there is extreme, the climbers are also some of the best athletes in the world. Know the signs and watch yourself and others to stay safe.
“Altitude Sickness.” Altitude.org.
“Altitude Sickness.” Webmd.com.
“Leading Causes of Death in the Everest Mountains.” News.softpedia.com.