Mountain Vacation? 5 Tips to Cope With Your Altitude Sickness

Plan ahead to reduce your risks
" Mountain Vacation? 5 Tips to Cope With Your Altitude Sickness"

Going on a hiking or skiing trip to the mountains? Whether you’re headed to Vail or Peru, if you’re prone to altitude sickness, taking a few precautions can make your trip more enjoyable.

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Altitude sickness happens when your body is unable to adapt to a low-pressure, low-oxygen environment — typically at about 8,000 feet above sea level. This may end up causing respiratory and neurological symptoms, which can range from very mild to life-threatening.

“When our body is in this stress situation of a low-oxygen and low-pressure environment, we have to adapt to it,”says pulmonologist Humberto Choi, MD. “Some people are unable to adapt and it can cause swelling in different organs. But the ones that we worry about the most experience swelling in the brain or lungs.”

Watch for these signs

It’s important to keep in mind that most cases of altitude sickness are mild.

Your symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath

You’ll typically experience these symptoms within hours after arriving at a high altitude.

“Most people are able to tolerate these mild symptoms and still function and do their activities,” Dr. Choi says. “Symptoms can last from minutes to hours to even days.”

If you can’t adjust

In rare cases, some people are unable to acclimate to a high altitude. As a result, symptoms can become more severe and cause complications with your brain or lungs. If you feel confused or disoriented, it might mean the altitude is affecting your brain function.

If you’re having problems breathing, that may mean you’re having a pulmonary edema, where excess fluid builds up in your lungs.

“Older people experience more severe symptoms, not so much because of their age but because they have more frequent chronic medical problems and may not adapt to this stress situation as well as someone younger,” Dr. Choi says.

Do this if you have symptoms

If you have mild symptoms that last for a few hours, you may be able to control the problem with rest and hydration.

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“If your symptoms last longer or seem to get worse, you may need to descend from the high-altitude area,” Dr. Choi says. “If the symptoms are severe, such as confusion, you should get to the ER immediately. Not only should you descend to a lower altitude, but you may also need oxygen.”

Dr. Choi notes that some people may experience altitude sickness briefly when flying because you ascend very quickly. However, that feeling quickly dissipates because the cabin in the plane is pressurized.

Tips to avoid altitude sickness

The best way to treat altitude sickness is to plan ahead the best you can, Dr. Choi says. He recommends five ways you can limit your risk.

1. Skip the lattes and beers

Avoid caffeine drinks, such as coffee and tea, and alcohol one day before leaving for your trip. And try to avoid them during your trip as well.

“Most people are traveling for fun, so alcohol and caffeinated drinks are things that actually affect our ability to compensate for altitude,” Dr. Choi says. “Also, these drinks don’t actually hydrate you, so it’s another reason to avoid it.”

2. Drink twice as much water

One of the best ways you can help your body adjust to high altitude is to drink more water.

High-altitude areas have low humidity which keeps the air dry. So you should drink twice as much water as you are used to, Dr. Choi says.

3. Acclimate before heading up

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Adjusting to a higher altitude can take a day or two. So if you’re not in any hurry, you may want to spend a couple nights at an intermediate altitude. Going to Vail? Stay in Denver overnight before continuing on.

4. Take it slow, if possible

Dr. Choi recommends a slow ascent once you arrive in the high-altitude area. This will give your body time to adapt to a lower level of oxygen and pressure.

“You want a gradual exposure to that environment rather than a rapid ascent,” he says.

5. Talk to your doctor

If you’re planning a trip to a high-altitude area, talk to your doctor before you go.

This is especially important if high altitudes have bothered you in the past, or you have a chronic medical problem such as heart or lung disease, discuss your concerns ahead of time with your primary care physician.

It’s also wise to find out where the local medical clinics are in case of an emergency. This is your backup plan in case your symptoms worsen.

Dr. Choi points out that most hotels in high-altitude areas carry oxygen for emergency situations.

“These are simple things you can do that may help prevent symptoms or at least provide you with a plan in the event something goes wrong,” he says.

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