Visitors to Colorado’s high country can forget they are at high altitude, sometimes more than a mile higher than at home, which for some can cause mild, moderate or even severe health concerns.
Acute mountain sickness
High-altitude sickness or acute mountain sickness (AMS) can affect travelers at high altitudes.
AMS is considered the mildest form of altitude illness, diagnosed in a person who lives at low altitude but who has recently ascended to an altitude of more than 6,500 feet, said registered nurse Patrick Stanifer, Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center interim emergency department manager and trauma coordinator.
Stanifer said AMS symptoms resemble those of an alcohol hangover: a headache often associated with fatigue, light-headedness, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, disturbed sleep and mild shortness of breath with exertion.
Onset of AMS is usually delayed for six to 12 hours following arrival at high altitude but can develop within one to two hours.
Salida is at 7,083 feet above sea level, while Buena Vista is at 7,965 feet, and almost anywhere in the foothills and mountains in Chaffee County will be above 8,000 feet.
For most people the altitude is not a problem, even if they plan to sleep in a high campground or cabin.
Preventive measures to avoid AMS include:
• Gradual ascent. This is the surest and safest method of preventing or ameliorating high-altitude sickness, Stanifer said.
As a general guideline, those who normally live below 5,000 feet elevation should avoid an abrupt ascent to sleeping altitudes above 9,200 feet.
This is best accomplished by spending one night at an intermediate altitude, particularly when traveling to an elevation that caused symptoms previously.
• Avoiding alcohol and sedative-type drugs, whose effects are greater at high altitude. In addition, people on blood thinners may be more prone to bleed, and those who use diuretics may dehydrate, causing dizziness and falls.
• Decreasing or avoiding smoking.
• Resting frequently as your body acclimates.
• Drinking water. The extra exertion to breathe to get enough oxygen combined with our dry mountain air may lead to greater loss of body moisture, according to HRRMC.
Medical professionals suggest drinking the equivalent of six to eight glasses of water every day to stay hydrated. It’s a good idea to carry a water bottle with you wherever you go. However, don’t be tempted to refill an empty water bottle with stream or lake water because it has the possibility of containing the intestinal parasite Giardia lamblia.
Interestingly, vigorous hydration, beyond the amount required to maintain adequate hydration, has not been shown to reduce the incidence of high-altitude sickness.
More severe conditions
Some may experience more severe conditions arising from acclimatization problems, including high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE)
Both HAPE, fluid on the lungs, and HACE, increased fluid and pressure on the brain, can occur as late as 24 hours after exposure to altitude at or above 8,200 feet.
Stanifer said people most at risk for developing AMS, HAPE or HACE are those who:
• Are young, fit athletic males who tend to push themselves and ignore early symptoms.
• Drink alcohol and exercise vigorously at elevation before acclimatization.
• Have a history of lung disease.
• Are very young children (younger than 6 months old).
Symptoms of HACE include sudden or progressive confusion, lack of balance, irritability, drowsiness and impaired thinking.
HAPE begins with a subtle dry cough and shortness of breath with exertion.
As HAPE progresses, severe breathlessness and coughing up pink, frothy sputum may occur.
In either case, the person experiencing these symptoms needs to be assisted to lower elevations and evaluated in the emergency department.
Those with prior conditions such as chronic heart or lung disease should avoid overexertion by moving at a slower pace and seek medical help if problems develop.
Medications are available to help with high-altitude sickness, and supplemental oxygen can be helpful in some cases.
Those who are affected by high-altitude sickness can try several actions to feel better:
• Descend to lower elevations.
• Limit physical activity.
• Use supplemental oxygen if necessary – canned oxygen is available at Walmart and other locations in the area.
• Stay hydrated.
• Seek emergency treatment if symptoms progress.
For more information about high-altitude health tips, visit Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center at hrrmc.com/Wellness-U/High-Altitude-Health-Tips.aspx.