Altitude sickness and accute mountain sickness – Know the symptoms
Special to the Sky-Hi News
As winter quickly approaches, the beauty and recreational activities of Grand County will soon draw thousands of visitors from different corners of the world. Winter Park, situated at just over 9,000 feet, can be quite a change in altitude for visitors, many of whom live at or near sea level. Any local can share key tips to having a great time in the mountains such as ensuring adequate hydration, making sure to apply sunscreen frequently, and layering to stay warm. It’s slightly less frequent that we see somebody with altitude sickness, but it’s important to recognize and know what to do in such a situation.
We may be familiar with altitude sickness, but what actually causes it? As an individual ascends into higher altitudes, the pressure of the surrounding air decreases, which means that they’re not able to get as much oxygen with each breath as compared to lower altitudes. The body responds to this in three main ways: 1) breathing faster, 2) changing circulation (heart rate, blood pressure, etc.), and 3) over time, increasing the amount of hemoglobin, the part of the red blood cell that carries oxygen to the rest of your body. The first is the most effective short-term response. The amount that people increase their breathing rate in response to high altitude varies widely and that increase is not affected, as one may think, by athletic training. Instead, it is mainly determined by genetics and other factors such as alcohol, caffeine and sleep. Although there are large individual differences, everybody will adjust over time to compensate for the changes in oxygen levels.
These adjustments can lead to different forms of high altitude illness, with acute mountain sickness (AMS) being the most common. AMS occurs in about 25% of visitors staying at altitudes above 6,500 feet with the root of the problem being simply: too high, too fast. Symptoms are similar to what you would see with a hangover: headache, fatigue, lightheadedness, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and shortness of breath with exertion. These symptoms usually arise within 6-12 hours of ascent and are likely to resolve after the first night.
Gradual ascent is the safest way to prevent AMS. Individuals with a history of altitude sickness can also speak to their doctor about the possibility of medications that may aid in prevention. If you are suspicious of AMS in a friend or family member, the first thing to do, if possible, is to descend to lower altitudes or use supplemental oxygen. Avoidance of alcohol and caffeine can help to avoid worsening symptoms, while over the counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be safely used to ease a headache. Since AMS can mimic symptoms of dehydration, making sure to drink plenty of fluids is another measure that should be taken initially. However, it is important to keep in mind that there are also more severe forms of high altitude illness, so worsening of symptoms, or other symptoms such as confusion or shortness of breath at rest should always warrant professional medical attention.
Bottom line: altitude sickness is a true example of when slow and steady wins the race.
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This summer’s potential for record-breaking recreation in Grand County comes down to simple math.