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To most, altitude sickness is a minor issue with minimal symptoms that may go unnoticed. However, with over 25% of people traveling above 8000ft (2500m) developing symptoms of altitude sickness, knowing how to recognize, treat, or even prevent altitude sickness could come in handy.
Altitude sickness, otherwise known as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), develops when reaching altitudes above 8000ft (2400m). The lack of oxygen at altitude can cause dizziness and nausea and is certainly something you’ll want to avoid on your ski vacation. Keeping hydrated and refraining from overexerting yourself is important.
Medical Disclaimer: The information and other content provided in this article, or in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment.
The earliest mention of altitude sickness was in a Chinese text from 30BCE, referred to as ‘Big Headache Mountains’. Which, if you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to experience AMS, you’ll understand that this accurately sums up the feeling of the illness.
What is Altitude Sickness?
When traveling high into the mountains, the atmosphere becomes thinner and less oxygen-rich. Typically, but not exclusively, this lack of oxygen will begin to affect our bodies at around 8000ft (2500m) above sea level. Unfortunately, you’ll find that many ski resorts reach far above this altitude.
Highest Ski Resort in USA
The top highest ski resorts in the USA are in the state of Colorado in the Rocky Mountains:
- Breckendridge (CO)
- Loveland (CO)
- Telluride (CO)
- Snowmass (CO)
- Toas (NM)
The Body’s Reaction to Altitude Sickness
Our body struggles to acclimate to large increases in altitude and altitude sickness tends to set in more commonly when rapidly exposed to an elevation gain.
With very little literature on the factors affecting your likelihood to develop altitude sickness, there is thought to be no discrimination in age, sex, or physical fitness in the risk of symptoms arising.
Additionally, don’t assume that because you haven’t had AMS at altitude before, you’re immune. While those who’ve had recent exposure are less likely to develop symptoms, you can still show signs of AMS having never suffered them before and vice versa.
Altitude sickness onset is thick and fast. Symptoms set in from between 6-24 hours upon arrival at altitude. AMS has a range of symptoms that are commonly experienced gradually. Headache, nausea, dizziness, confusion, fatigue, and disturbed sleep, are the most common symptoms. Everyone will experience the effects differently and with differing strengths.
Generally, the altitude sickness that most experience is fairly mild, however, there are more severe symptoms that may indicate a more life-threatening altitude-related sickness.
At high altitudes, some can develop high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE), arising from a buildup of fluid in the tissues of the body. Incidences of HAPE or HACE are 0.5-1% with a slightly higher chance of developing it in men than women.
Important: A persistent dry cough, shortness of breath at rest, visual impairment, and loss of bladder and bowel control, are suggestive of these more severe altitude-related illnesses. These are very rare cases and require immediate medical attention, without which they could prove fatal.
Preventing Altitude Sickness
If you’re looking to avoid this mountain hangover, you’ll be happy to know that there are several tried and tested techniques.
Gradual Elevation Gain
Our bodies struggle to acclimate to lower oxygen levels, and doing so quickly can prove very difficult for our bodies.
Tip: Ideally, it’s recommended to increase elevation by 1000ft (300m) per day to avoid symptoms of altitude sickness.
This may be difficult to achieve, but I would suggest considering staying in a town that’s a little lower down the mountain the night before your trip to acclimate.
Ease Into It
This won’t be what you want to hear, but don’t ski too long or hard on your first day. The excitement of the first day on the mountain may make it difficult to put this advice into practice, but over-exerting yourself is one way to get altitude sickness.
Keep in mind that your body has access to much less oxygen at altitude, which, when paired with exercise, can be a recipe for AMS.
Being suitably hydrated will help your body acclimate to altitude easier. This replaces the fluids lost through heavier breathing and dryer air found at altitude.
Advice: Drink lots of water in preparation for your trip and continue to do so during and after to keep the symptoms at bay.
If you’re serious about avoiding altitude sickness then staying away from alcohol on your first night in the mountains could make all the difference.
Alcohol suppresses breathing rates, causing there to be lower levels of oxygen in the blood. Pairing the effects of alcohol with a less oxygen-dense atmosphere at altitude will result in a bad case of AMS.
‘Climb high, Sleep low’
Lodging at a high altitude increases the likelihood of developing symptoms of altitude sickness, so if you tend to suffer from AMS regularly, or are at risk of developing HACE or HAPE, it’s worth considering accommodation lower down the mountain and traveling up to ski each day.
While this may seem like a slightly more inconvenient option, many ski towns have links to the towns at lower altitudes, and lodging lower down can be considerably cheaper.
Choose Lower Resorts
If you feel you’re more at risk of developing a more serious case of AMS (or HAPE/HACE), it’s recommended to look at visiting resorts that begin, and peak at lower altitudes. Look for resorts that top out at 8000ft and your likelihood to develop symptoms will be reduced.
In mild cases of AMS, you are not required to see a doctor as ibuprofen should alleviate most minor symptoms. Additionally, making sure you’re well-rested and keeping hydrated will cause the symptoms to reduce so that you can enjoy your time in the mountains with little discomfort.
It’s recommended to not increase in elevation until your symptoms are gone.
If symptoms persevere or become more severe, it may be of benefit to descend to a lower altitude for the day. You’ll quickly feel your body start to feel better after dropping down by 500ft or so.
When Should I See A Doctor?
In rarer cases, altitude sickness may persevere. If you’ve tried each of the above treatment tips and the symptoms isn’t improving it may be worth seeking help from a doctor. They can prescribe medication that enhances breathing ability allowing your body to intake more oxygen.
If experiencing symptoms of either HAPE or HACE, descend immediately and seek medical help. A doctor will need to use a stethoscope, x-ray, MRI, or CT scan to look for excess fluid in your body. Both can be treated when caught early enough but can prove fatal if not treated correctly. As previously mentioned, cases of HAPE and HACE are uncommon but an awareness of their characteristics may prove beneficial.
Altitude sickness is very common but can be avoidable. By ensuring that you’re hydrated and taking it easy on your first day or two at altitude, this means gentle skiing and avoiding the booze (sorry!), you may be able to prevent the worst of the symptoms of altitude sickness.
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