Health Effects of High Altitude

At high elevations everyone is affected to some degree.  As you go to higher altitudes, the barometric pressure decreases, the air is thinner and less oxygen is available.  The air is also drier and the ultraviolet rays from the sun are stronger.  At elevations of greater than 7,000 feet, your body responds by breathing faster and more deeply, resulting in shortness of breath, especially on exertion.  Many people develop mild symptoms of headache, nausea, trouble sleeping and unusual tiredness, which we call acute mountain sickness (AMS).  These symptoms usually go away in a day or two.  If symptoms are severe, persist or worsen, you should consult a doctor.  A short visit to a physician may save the rest of your vacation.

The effects of high altitude can be decreased by following these recommendations:

  1. Increase fluid intake:  drink two or three times more fluid than usual ;  water and juices are best.  Adequate hydration is the key to preventing altitude illness.  You should drink enough fluids to urinate approximately every two hours.
  2. Use Sunscreen (SPF 15-30).  Always wear sunglasses or goggles.
  3. Avoid alcohol and minimize caffeine on your day of arrival and for one to two days thereafter.  Be very careful if consuming alcohol; at this altitude, you may be much more sensitive to the effects of alcohol and sedatives.
  4. Decrease salt intake:  salt causes your body to retain fluid (edema), which increases the severity of altitude illness.
  5. Eat frequent, small meals high in carbohydrates, low in fat and low in protein.
  6. Moderate physical activity and get plenty of rest.
  7. Medications and oxygen can help you feel much better.  Diamox (acetazolamide) is a prescription drug that prevents the unpleasant symptoms for many people.  Contact your doctor.
  8. Spending 1-2 nights at a modest altitude of 4,00-5,000 feet, such as Albuquerque prior to arrival at higher altitudes decreases symptoms when you go higher.
  9. Have fun and enjoy the mountains!

High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE)  is a more serious condition.  This condition is recognized by a wet cough, increasing shortness of breath, and the feeling of fluid building up in your lungs.  Another serious condition is High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE).   Symptoms of this condition include disorientation, confusion, lack of coordination or difficulty walking.  If you feel any of these symptoms developing , you need to seek medical attention immediately.  HAPE and  HACE can be threatening if left untreated..