Altitude Sickness

Since National Jewish Health is located in the "Mile High City" of Denver, its elevation can cause some patients, who come from out of state, to experience altitude sickness.

Altitude sickness occurs when the body reacts poorly to sudden travel to high altitudes, where the air is "thinner" and the body gets less oxygen in each breath. About one in five people traveling to the mountains of Colorado suffer altitude sickness.

 

Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

The most common symptom is a headache. Difficulty sleeping, shortness of breathe, loss of appetite, and vomiting are other common symptoms. Symptoms usually develop in the first 12 hours after reaching altitude and subside in one to three days.

It is difficult to predict who will get altitude sickness. Even aerobically fit people may suffer. It is more likely among people who have come from sea level and among younger people, especially children.

 

Severity of Altitude Sickness

It is not dangerous in the vast majority of cases among people traveling to Colorado mountains. People with underlying respiratory or cardiovascular diseases should consult a doctor before coming to high altitudes as these conditions can make it difficult to adjust to altitude.

In extremely rare occasions people can develop more severe symptoms, called high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE). They are characterized by extreme fatigue, weakness, and severe cough or confusion, drowsiness, and difficulty walking. People suffering such symptoms should consult a doctor.

 

How to Avoid Altitude Sickness

  • The most reliable way to avoid altitude sickness is to ascend to altitude slowly, say spending a night in Denver before traveling to the mountains.
  • Do not overexert yourself.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Minimize alcohol consumption because that can lead to dehydration, which can occur easily in the dry environment in the mountains.
  • Eat lighter meals, high in carbohydrates.

People who experiences altitude sickness should rest, drink plenty of fluids, and take a mild pain killer, such as aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen. If symptoms persist, the person should contact their physician.

 

This information has been approved by E. Rand Sutherland, MD, MPH (February 2011).

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