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Altitude Sickness


By Karen Minard #64779
Photo by Diana Tolerico #93651.

Do your travel plans include Colorado, Wyoming, Utah or other high-altitude areas this summer? For those of you who will be heading into high altitude to venture into the mountains, here is some information about altitude sickness that may be helpful.

Altitude sickness is difficult to prevent; however, there are ways you can ease its effects while you enjoy the beauty of the mountains.

Once you arrive to the area, spend a day or two in lower altitude areas to acclimate. It is suggested by doctors that you avoid strenuous activity for that first day or two, drink extra fluid and eat high-carbohydrate foods like rice, pasta and cereals. John West, MD, PhD, of WebMD, states, “Avoid alcohol, sleeping pills or narcotics and avoid heavy exercise,” since these may interfere with breathing and cause you to feel short of breath.

Oxygen concentration is 21 percent whether you are at sea level or at higher elevations. Because of the decreasing air pressure at higher elevations, you take in much fewer oxygen molecules per breath once you go over approximately 7,000 to 8,000 feet. Thus the term “thinner” air is commonly heard. You get less oxygen in your lungs with each breath, which results in less oxygen in your blood. This is called hypoxia. Some people experience hypoxia at lesser altitudes than 7,000 feet. Your respiratory track must operate at full capacity. You will notice both your heart rate and breathing rate will be increased as your body tries to send more oxygen to its tissues, and you may feel short of breath with minimal exertion. This is a normal physiological response. So, for some folks, even walking up a set of stairs can feel like excessive exertion and result in the feeling of shortness of breath. If you already have a respiratory medical issue, you will want to be careful of overexerting, because getting oxygen to the blood is achieved by the respiratory system and becomes more difficult if you have a medical issue or are a smoker.

It can take approximately 48 hours to acclimate to altitude and resolve the symptoms. Individual tolerance varies, and those in poor physical condition, such as with heart or lung conditions, are the most susceptible. So take it slow and easy. You may experience headache, fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea and poor appetite. Some may experience inability to sleep. In other words, you may feel like you have the flu. Some may realize they are panting for greater intake of air with exertion. If your symptoms become worse and include severe shortness of breath, mental disorientation or disturbed balance, “Return to lower altitude immediately,” says Dr. John West.

But there is good news! The symptoms usually go away by the fourth day, and, traveling back down to lower-altitude areas will always relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness. So, one way or another, high or low, you will have plenty to do while in spending time in the mountains, so enjoy!

Karen lives full-time in her motorhome. She has been in nursing since 1969, with eight years as a RN travel contract nurse. Her areas of specialty are emergency room and telemetry. Portions of Karen’s articles may be published, or have been previously published, in other newsletters and publications. Nothing written is meant to diagnose, prescribe or take the place of seeing a physician, and her articles are not meant to cover all available information or health care options.

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