Coping With High Altitudes - My Family Travels

Doc Holiday talks about altitude sickness and its causes, and how to prevent it on your next vacation to a mountain resort.

While most visitors to mountain resorts do not suffer any medical problems from their visit to the high altitude, the following information should help prevent any in your family.

The reduced amount of oxygen at altitude may have adverse effects on pre-existing medical problems. New or increased symptoms such as shortness of breath and a rapid pulse may occur with heart and lung problems. Blood pressure may increase transiently and some may develop swelling in their feet and ankles. There are no easy guidelines for when medical assistance is necessary in these circumstances, but it is best to call a doctor or emergency service just in case.

Dehydration can occur much more frequently in the mountains than at sea level locations since the relative humidity is low. Dehydration can sap one’s energy, cause headaches, and affect athletic performance. The best rule of thumb is to drink enough fluid to cause the need for urination at least every three hours. Take frequent water or fluid breaks during vigorous activities such as skiing and hiking.

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is a syndrome which can range from mild headaches to an incapacitating illness. Frequent symptoms are headaches, nausea, insomnia, fatigue, lack of appetite and lightheadedness. Generally, symptoms will improve with rest and fluids over 24 to 48 hours. The prescription medicine Diamox which will help prevent AMS; other medications provide symptomatic relief. Alcohol, tranquilizers, sleep medication, and antihistamines may make AMS worse. Consult with a physician before using these drugs when suffering from AMS. AMS can progress into a more serious illness known as High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). This medical emergency is heralded by an incapacitating headache, neurological symptoms such as a “drunken” gait, and may proceed to a coma. Prompt emergency help is critical with HACE.

Frostbite is the actual freezing of the skin and underlying tissue, most frequently affecting the fingers, toes, nose and cheeks. Frostbitten areas initially look white and then turn red. A purple hue to the skin usually means a more severe freezing problem. Most frostbitten extremities tingle or feel numb initially and hurt with rewarming. Seek medical attention if you suspect frostbite.

High altitude predisposes one to sunburn and snow blindness (sunburn of the eyes) because there is less atmosphere to filter out ultraviolet rays. Sun block is mandatory for those with sensitive skin and should be used by all to prevent discomfort and the aging effects of sunburn. In addition, it helps protect from the possible increased risk of skin cancer caused by excessive sun exposure. Year round, wide-brimmed hats will help protect sensitive ears and exposed scalps. Snow blindness is prevented by wearing UV filtering sunglasses. Side panels which block reflected light are also helpful when on snow and water.

Nose bleeds will also occur more frequently due to the dry air, particularly in the early mornings. Using a vaporizer, Vaseline, and avoiding colds will help prevent them. If a bleed occurs, pinching the nose for 5 to 10 minutes will usually stop the bleeding. If it does not stop, contact help.

The effects of alcohol and other drugs are dramatically increased at altitude. For example, at an elevation of 6,200 feet above sea level, the effect of alcohol will be approximately double for the sea level inhabitant and hangovers will be worse. Be careful. Don’t drink while driving or participating in potentially hazardous sports.

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