You don’t have to ski the highest Colorado slopes or climb the mountains of Peru to start feeling the effects of higher elevation. You may feel out of breath simply walking from your hotel room to a restaurant down the street and wonder, “am I really this out of shape?” In reality, the higher you go the thinner the air gets, so you take in less oxygen per breath. You start to feel differently – and not in a good way.
The key is understanding the symptoms, how to adjust, and when you may need help. Whether you’re headed to Aspen to ski, taking in an adventurous mountain hike or simply headed to a higher elevation to visit family, it is wise to know the facts and plan ahead. Don’t let altitude sickness ruin your trip! Stay safe with our high altitude travel tips.
What is altitude sickness?
Altitude sickness, also called mountain sickness, is a group of symptoms brought on by climbing or walking to a higher altitude too quickly. Interestingly, it’s not the height so much as the speed of ascent.
Here’s how altitude is defined:
- High altitude – 8,000 to 12,000 feet above sea level
- Very high altitude – 12,000 – 18,000 feet above sea level
- Extremely high altitude – 18,000 feet and above
The process typically starts at around 5,000 feet. As you go higher, the odds of experiencing altitude sickness increase. At about 8,000 feet, roughly 75% of people will feel some symptoms. Without enough time to adapt to lower air pressure and oxygen levels in the air at high altitudes, the body responds by increasing your breathing rate and boosting blood oxygen levels. Your body must adjust to operating with less oxygen than usual. If not given enough time to adjust, you’ll develop symptoms of altitude sickness.
Depending on a few factors, it can take your body days or even weeks to fully acclimatize. Be aware that physically fit individuals are not necessarily protected – even Olympic athletes get altitude sickness. If you’ve suffered from altitude sickness before, you are more susceptible to experiencing it again.
What are the symptoms of altitude sickness?
Symptoms of mild, short-term altitude sickness usually begin within 12 to 24 hours after arrival, and may include:
- shortness of breath and dry cough
- loss of appetite
- sleep problems
- loss of energy
Symptoms of moderate altitude sickness may include:
- same symptoms as above, but more intense
- symptoms not relieved by over-the-counter medicines
- fatigue, weakness and worsening shortness of breath
- loss of coordination and difficulty walking
- severe headache, nausea and vomiting
- tightness or congestion in the chest
Severe altitude sickness is an emergency situation requiring an immediate lowering of altitude and serious medical treatment. Symptoms may include:
- shortness of breath (at rest)
- inability to walk and confusion
- cough and a gray, pale or bluish skin tone
How can I adjust to higher elevations?
The best way to prevent altitude sickness is by giving your body time to acclimate.
- If you are going to altitudes higher than 8000 feet, try to spend a night at a medium altitude and head higher the next day.
- Avoid flying into high-altitude cities. If this is not possible, avoid large meals, alcohol, and being very active after you arrive. Rest, and drink plenty of liquids.
- Ease into activity at a slower pace. When hiking or climbing above 10,000 feet, increase your altitude by no more than 1,000 feet a day and build a rest day into your schedule for every 3,000 feet gained. If you climb more than 1,000 feet in a day, come down to sleep at a lower altitude.
- Always move to a lower altitude if symptoms of altitude sickness develop.
- Stay hydrated – drink plenty of water. Your body loses salt and water faster at higher elevations.
- Alcohol hits you harder at higher elevations. It is best to avoid it for at least the first 48 hours after your arrival. Avoid tobacco and other depressant drugs, including sedatives and sleeping pills.
- Climbing experts recommend taking along enough tanks of oxygen to last for several days when traveling above 10,000 feet. Oxygen canisters are typically sold at popular higher elevation cities.
- Sleep at an altitude that is lower than the altitude you were at during the day. For example, if you ski at 9500 feet during the day, sleep the night before and the night after at 8000 feet.
- Take ibuprofen 6 hours before climbing to high elevations. Then take it every 6 hours while climbing may help prevent altitude sickness. Ibuprofen may also reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness if you do get it.
- Eat a lot of carbohydrates for energy and increase your potassium intake to replenish electrolytes by balancing salt intake.
Are certain health issues affected by high altitudes?
Always consult with your doctor about altitude sickness if you have long-term diseases, especially heart problems, high blood pressure, lung issues, sickle cell anemia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or sleep apnea. Pregnant women should also consult with their doctor before traveling to higher altitudes. See more advice on dealing with pre-existing medical conditions at high altitudes from the Institute on Altitude Medicine at Telluride.
Whether training for an epic Himalayan Expedition or simply heading to Banff on vacation, use our tips to adjust, be aware of how you’re feeling and be prepared to act if necessary. Even with the best of intentions, sometimes the unexpected actually happens. Don’t forget to protect yourself and your travel investment with a travel insurance plan tailored to your needs. We are here to help.
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