Altitude sickness

By HSC Staff Writer • Published: December 1st, 2006
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Gearing up for ski season? If you’re heading to the Rocky Mountains or a similar high-altitude destination, plan carefully: You could be at risk for altitude sickness.

About one in five people who hit the slopes this season will experience a mild headache or shortness of breath while acclimating to the altitude. But skiers heading to popular Rocky Mountain resorts like Vail and Keystone, where the slopes can reach elevations upwards of twelve-thousand feet, are far more likely to suffer altitude-related ailments.

Tourists often make the journey from sea level to high elevations in less than a day. They arrive eager to hit the slopes, only to battle a debilitating headache, nausea and shortness of breath… symptoms that get increasingly worse at night.

Altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness, is triggered by decreased oxygen in the air at high elevations. The body compensates by increasing blood flow to the brain… causing a pressure headache… and decreasing blood flow to non-vital organs like the stomach, leading to nausea.

In its mildest form, altitude sickness lasts a day or two and can be treated with over-the-counter painkillers. But if symptoms persist, you may need to visit a physician for further treatment. In severe cases, the only solution is to descend to a lower elevation.

Prevent altitude sickness by drinking extra water, eating high-carbohydrate foods, avoiding alcohol and pacing yourself. The faster you ascend, the more likely you are to suffer the consequences.