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All About Altitude Sickness

Updated: Dec 20, 2022






Denver, Colorado is known as the "Mile High City" because sits exactly one mile (or 5,280ft) above sea level.


That's just a little shy of two Empire State Buildings stacked on top of one another!


Why is this important, you ask? Let's dive into a few facts about altitude....


For starters as you begin to ascend in altitude, the air becomes thinner and contains less oxygen.


So, if you are visiting Colorado from another place with a much lower altitude, your body is accustomed to a climate that contains a much higher concentration of oxygen.


When your body goes from a healthy supply of oxygen, to hardly any at all... it can be quite the shock.


This is where Acute Mountain Sickness, aka "Altitude Sickness" comes into play.


Altitude Sickness can be pretty common phenomenon for out of state visitors and is something to be aware of.


You may find that when you travel to higher elevations walking up stairs takes more effort, you might feel more tired than usual, become out of breath a lot more easily or find it harder to catch your breath, you may feel dizzy and/or nauseous and you might get a headache that just won't go away.


These are common symptoms of Altitude Sickness and it's what happens to your body when it's adjusting to lower oxygen levels.


For some, their symptoms may not be so noticeable but for others, it may last 24-48 hours and sometimes even longer and can range from moderate to more severe.





Tips for relieving Altitude Sickness:

  • Stay hydrated (Did I mention that Colorado is also very dry?)

  • Don't over exert yourself within the first 24-48hours

  • Eat plenty of nutritious meals

  • Avoid drugs and alcohol (yes... this includes the "recreational" kind too)

  • Take ibuprofen or Tylenol to relieve any headaches

  • Purchase "Canned Oxygen" and use that as supplemental oxygen if your symptoms are more moderate

  • Don't go higher up in altitude (aka drive to the mountains)

That last tip is the most important out of them all, so let me explain further...


If you are experiencing symptoms of Altitude Sickness (aka hypoxia), you should take caution when climbing up higher in elevation, and if possible, avoid it altogether until your symptoms go away.


I know this is hard to do, especially if you are on vacation and have plans and/or crunched for time, but it's important to note that if you exceed altitudes of over 8,000ft in elevation (which is a good chunk of Colorado) that's when Acute Mountain Sickness can become more serious.


You see, when your body is experiencing symptoms of Altitude Sickness it is telling you that something isn't right. Listen to your body.


If you continue to push yourself to the limit, well.... the tables can turn on you, and not in a good way.


If you go higher up in elevation, the thinner the air becomes and the more hypoxic your body becomes.


The more hypoxic your body becomes, the more severe your symptoms can become.


The more severe your symptoms become, the quicker you should descend in altitude/elevation.


When Altitude Sickness is pushed beyond its limit, it can ultimately turn into HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) or HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema).


This is bad news.


Pulmonary Edema means that your alveoli (tiny air sacs in your lungs) begin to fill with fluid.


Cerebral Edema means that the space around your brain is beginning to fill with fluid which increases the amount of pressure in your skull.


This excess fluid is caused from narrowed blood vessels from lack of oxygen.




Symptoms of HAPE may include:

  • Increased breathlessness, even when resting

  • General weakness

  • Persistent cough

  • Coughing up white or pink sputum (a frothy liquid)

  • Chest tightness

  • Bluish tinge to your lips or skin

It is important to note that HAPE is specific to the respiratory system, although it is possible to experience HAPE and HACE at the same time, but the percentages are extremely low, something like 16%.


HACE is the rarer one of the two.


Symptoms of HACE may include:

  • Extreme drowsiness

  • Confusion and irritability

  • Trouble walking

  • Angry Outbursts

  • Hallucinations


If you experience any of these symptoms while in the high country of Colorado, you should descend immediately.


Descending down the mountain is the only way you can stop these symptoms from progressing.


If you do not descend and continue to climb higher, your decision can become a fatal one.


If you experience symptoms of HAPE or HACE, you should follow up with an emergency clinic (even if you've descended) as you will very likely need follow up care, and medication.


The good news here is that HAPE and HACE are pretty rare in Colorado, and generally occur in elevations around 13,000ft and higher.


About 1 in 10,000 out of state travelers are at potential risk and its typically because signs of Acute Mountain Sickness were ignored.

(Keep in mind that Colorado has upwards of 83 Million visitors per year.)


Those who have experienced HAPE or HACE in the past are more at risk for developing these symptoms at high altitude in the future, and if you have any preexisting lung and heart conditions, you should take extra precaution as well.


If you have any preexisting medical conditions, I urge you to read the information on this site Altitude and Pre-Existing Conditions — Institute For Altitude Medicine (highaltitudedoctor.org) There is a ton of great information here.


To sum it all up, High Altitude and lack of oxygen can be hard on the body, and some experience it worse than others.


I don't bring this information up to scare anyone, but rather to educate. I have seen my fair share of out of state travelers fly in from sea level, then drive up to the ski resorts immediately after landing, only to be brought back down by ambulance.


Talk about a big bummer!


How to Properly Acclimate to Higher Elevations

  • Acclimate for a minimum of 24 hours when traveling to higher elevations (aka stay in Denver for a day before traveling to the mountains)

  • Climb slowly in elevation (approximately 1,000ft per day) when recreating

  • Drink plenty of fluids & eat nutritious foods (leafy greens are great for increasing oxygenation within the body)

  • Avoid over exertion in activities

  • Get plenty of rest

  • Listen to your body


The takeaway?


When visiting Colorado consider adding an extra day to your trip to allow for acclimation. Listen to your body, if you're feeling like you have a really bad hangover, take it easy before going on any adventures. Make sure to ascend slowly if you do go high up in elevation right off the bat.


If you notice any unusual symptoms, stop and rest. Consider buying canned oxygen (available at most convenience stores) if you're short on breath. This will help you to breath better and can reduce headaches,


If your symptoms don't get better, consider descending- even if that means driving back down to Denver. For some people that's the best-case scenario for relieving their symptoms.


Any questions? We're here to help!


Send us a message through our chat option or give us a call anytime we're happy to assist with anything you might need.


Until then, keep on exploring!


-Christie
































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