The mountains of Colorado are among the most beautiful parts of the United States. However, some of the very features that make this area so attractive also present a specific set of challenges to non-acclimated visitors. The most important thing you can do is to understand these challenges, their symptoms, and what you can do to circumvent them.
As you ascend to higher altitudes, atmospheric pressure decreases, the air is thinner and less oxygen is available. It is also colder, drier and the ultraviolet rays from the sun are stronger. Above 8000 feet, altitude illness affects 20 to 30% of visitors from low altitude to some degree. The extent to which you are affected depends on how quickly you ascend, what elevation you attain, how hard you exercise, what you eat and drink and what health problems you may have (smoking, emphysema, asthma, anemia, diabetes and high blood pressure). When planning a trip to an area above 8000 ft. consult with your doctor if you have any questions
After arriving at high altitude, you will probably notice that your breathing is faster and/or deeper, and you may feel short of breath especially when exercising. This is the body's first and most effective response to higher elevation. In addition, your heart is likely to beat faster and you may develop nausea, unusual tiredness, headache, or have difficulty sleeping.
Visitors with one or more of these symptoms may have acute mountain sickness (AMS). This form of altitude illness usually resolves in a day or two. If the symptoms become worse or if you are concerned be sure to consult a doctor.
A wet cough, increasing shortness of breath or the feeling of fluid collecting in your lungs may signal a more serious condition called High Altitude Pulmonary Edema or HAPE. HAPE requires immediate medical attention.
Before you leave home, you can do a few things to decrease the effects of high altitude. Spending two nights at modest altitude, 5000 to 6000 feet may decrease symptoms when you ascend. Eating foods which are high in carbohydrates, drinking more water than usual and using less salt may also help
Diamox is a prescription drug which prevents unpleasant symptoms for many people who may be exceptionally prone to AMS. Our experience suggests a small dose can be effective: 125 mg twice a day beginning 24 hours before arrival to high altitude. Diamox should not be taken by people who are allergic to sulfa drugs. Discuss use and possible minor side effects (tingling sensations, altered taste, increased urination) with your doctor.
Once you arrive take it easy for the first day or two. Adequate hydration is important in the prevention of altitude illness. Drink two or three times more water or fluid than usual. Limit alcohol consumption for two or three days and minimize caffeine intake. Limit salty foods and increase carbohydrate consumption. Above all, listen to your body! Do not push the limits of your physical capabilities. If you feel worse, seek medical attention.
Quick Tips To Avoid Altitude Illness
- Increase Fluid Intake
- Decrease Salt Intake
- Moderate Your Physical Activity
- Eat High Carbohydrate, Low Fat Meals
- Reduce Alcohol and Caffeine Intake
- Feeling Worse? Seek Help
At high altitude the ultraviolet rays from the sun are more intense and therefore more damaging. Even when it is cloudy the risk of sunburn is extreme. Before going out protect yourself and your family from the suns ultraviolet rays. Apply a sunscreen SPF 30 or higher to your skin before beginning outdoor activities and every two hours while outside. To prevent sun injury to the eyes, wear sunglasses or goggles with (UV) protection.
Quick Tips to Prevent Sunburn
- Use Sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher)
- Always Wear Sun Glasses or Goggles
Hypothermia & Frostbite
The air temperature falls about three degrees Fahrenheit for every 1000 feet of elevation gain. Therefore, temperatures in the high country can drop rapidly. Hypothermia (low body temperature) can occur when you are wet, chilled, fatigued or dressed inappropriately; even during warm weather. Warning signs are confusion, difficulty speaking, irritability and loss of coordination. Bring along extra clothes, drink and eat sufficiently and watch for warning signs in each other. If in doubt, stop, warm up, take fluids and food, and if necessary send for help. Frostbite is caused by cold exposure resulting in ice crystals forming in the skin. It frequently occurs in the extremities, specifically the nose, ears, fingers and toes. The skin becomes numb, firm and yellowish white in color. Rewarming causes tingling and pain with skin color changes and blisters occurring in severe cases. Prevention includes dressing appropriately in winter (layering), wearing boots and gloves that are not wet or too tight, and taking time to warm up frequently. Consult a doctor for severe cases of any of these injuries due to exposure to cold weather.
Quick Tips - Prevent Cold Injury
- Dress in Layers
- Bring Extra Clothes for Sudden
- Wear Properly Fitting Boots and Gloves
- Avoid Wet Clothing
- Drink and Eat Frequently
- Stop to Warm Up Often
- Watch Each Other For Warning Signs
** Courtesy of High Country Healthcare, P.C.