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Altitude Sickness

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You've been looking forward to this fabulous skiing vacation for a long time. You finally arrive – but you feel like crawling into bed rather than hitting the slopes. You've come down with altitude sickness.

What is it?  Altitude sickness or acute mountain sickness is a group of symptoms people can experience due to low oxygen levels at higher altitude.   The most common symptom is a headache.  This can be accompanied by stomach upset, fatigue/weakness, dizziness, and/or difficulty sleeping.   Less frequently, people can feel shortness of breath when exercising or with any exertion.  Some people describe it as “feeling hung over.” The symptoms usually start 12-24 hours after reaching the altitude.  This may be just the time you are hitting the PayDay lift at Park City Mountain Resort.

Who gets it?  Anyone can feel the symptoms and it can happen to people at any age, gender or fitness level.   It can be felt at altitudes higher than 1 mile high – 5,280 feet.  The base of the Park City Mountain Resort is 6,900 feet and the top of the Jupiter peak is 10,000 feet.   It is most commonly a problem at altitudes over 8,000 feet.

Is it dangerous?  It can be.  If the symptoms are ignored and the person continues on to higher altitudes, a dangerous progression can develop leading to swelling in the lungs or the brain.   These conditions are life threatening.  It's important to watch your kids for any odd changes in behavior – especially if they are too young to tell you that they feel sick.

What can be done to prevent it?  Our bodies can and will adjust to higher altitudes with time.  If you already know that you or someone in your family is sensitive to higher altitudes you can still have a great mountain vacation with some minor modifications.   Instead of flying to your destination, consider driving.  The slower change in altitude may be all that is necessary to prevent the uncomfortable symptoms.  It is helpful to rest at your destination prior to exerting yourself with strenuous activity.  You may need to consider staying in Park City for a couple of days before heading up to the slopes so that your body can adjust to the lower oxygen levels at higher altitude.

It is also recommended to increase fluid intake for the first several days at higher altitude.  That should be with water and not “Polygamy Porter.”   Alcohol, sedatives, smoking and excess stress should be avoided if possible. 

There are also medications available to help prevent altitude sickness, so talk with your doctor and get his or her advice.

What if I’m pregnant?  I usually advise my patients not to venture above 8,000 feet when they are pregnant.  I don’t advise snow skiing or boarding while pregnant because the change in center of gravity increases the chances of a fall which could be dangerous for both the mother and the baby. The other tips for increasing hydration and slowly ascending to altitude also help expecting mothers minimize altitude symptoms.

In summary, the concern of altitude sickness should not prevent a family from planning a fun filled winter vacation adventure.   With some minor modifications, the whole family can enjoy the time even if one family member is sensitive to the altitude.   Just remember to hydrate and “sleep low, climb high.”

 

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