If you happen to live in a mountainous area, something magical happens this time of year—snow begins to fall and the ski lifts start moving up and down the mountain. It’s something akin to a national holiday in places like Colorado and Utah. Thousands of people make their first turns on the slope, marking the start of a long, exhilarating season on the mountain.
But, there are risks, too. We all know skiing or snowboarding down a hill comes with its fair share of injuries, but there’s one risk that’s a little more hidden, and that’s altitude sickness. Of course, it’s not only a concern for skiers and snowboarders. Anyone who likes to spend time in high-altitude environments is at risk for developing symptoms and it can quickly turn a dream trip into a nightmare in just a few hours.
So, with that in mind, we’re covering altitude sickness today—what it is, how to prevent it, and how to treat it. Once you’re armed with knowledge, you’ll be ready for the mountains and a breath of fresh air—no matter how little air there actually is.
What is Altitude Sickness?
As you move higher up in altitude, barometric pressure increases, which reduces the overall amount of oxygen in the air. For example, at an altitude of 8,000 feet, the oxygen drops by about 25 percent and at 18,000 feet, it drops by half. If you’re standing on the summit of Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth, you’re breathing in just 33 percent of the oxygen you’d normally be breathing at sea level.
Hopefully, you know this already, but humans need oxygen, so the less we get the more problems can arise. The most common and mildest form of altitude sickness is acute mountain sickness (AMS), which generally isn’t life-threatening, but can definitely ruin your day. More severe versions of altitude sickness include high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), which causes a buildup of fluid in the lungs, and high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE), which causes a buildup of fluid in the brain. In most cases, HAPE and HACE only occur in extreme conditions, generally above 14,000 feet in high altitude environments.
But, AMS is extremely common, especially for people who don’t normally live at altitude. In fact, nearly half of people who live at low altitude and travel to altitudes above 10,000 feet will experience AMS symptoms and 25 percent who travel to altitudes above 8,000 feet will experience AMS symptoms, according to studies. And, for reference, many ski resorts in the Rocky Mountains sit well above the 10,000-foot mark, with the highest being Breckenridge at 12,841 feet.
As for symptoms, it’s not all that different from a hangover. If you’re above 8,000 feet and you have a headache, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, loss of appetite, and shortness of breath, you’re probably experiencing some levels of AMS. You’ll probably notice the symptoms worsen at night.
How Do You Prevent Altitude Sickness?
Studies have shown that people who’ve had difficulties with AMS in the past will have a much higher chance of seeing symptoms in the future. According to the National Institute of Health, people who’ve experienced symptoms have a 58 percent chance of experiencing symptoms, while people who’ve never had symptoms only have a 29 percent chance. So, if you know you tend to deal with AMS at altitude, you need to assume you’ll deal with it again.
The good news is that there are a few different ways to prevent altitude sickness.
First and foremost, if you have the ability to ascend gradually, then that’s the best way to prevent the onset of AMS. Your body needs time to acclimate to new conditions and flying directly from Miami to Vail is probably not the best way to do it. If possible, spend a few days at slightly higher altitudes, like 3,000 to 6,000 feet, before heading up to the thin air of the mountains.
But, for those of us who live in the real world and don’t have time to spend a few days acclimating, be sure to take it easy when you get to high altitudes. Another strategy is to take day trips from lower altitude to higher altitude.
One of the best things you can do for both prevention and treatment of AMS is to drink copious amounts of water. First, an increase of water will increase your blood oxygen levels, helping your body cope with the thin air. Any of our insulated Water Bottles are great for keeping your drinks warm during a cold day in the mountains, but we think the Narrow Mouth Water Bottle is great for throwing in a backpack on the ski lift. While water is best, drinks like tea can also be a great way to stay hydrated. Lastly, avoid drinking alcoholic beverages, particularly during the first day or two of your trip to prevent dehydration. Plus, with symptoms of AMS mirroring a hangover, you definitely don’t need two of them at once.
How to Treat Altitude Sickness?
Luckily, the treatment for AMS is fairly simple if you’re experiencing symptoms. Your first step should be to drink water and take it easy. That’s the best way to increase the oxygen levels in your blood and give your body some time to catch up. Maybe take a rest day from the slopes and spend some time relaxing by the fire for a few hours. Over the counter medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help with the headaches and anti-nausea medications like promethazine can help settle your stomach.
If symptoms continue to persist after a restful 24 hours, it’s best to head for lower altitudes to give your body a chance to recover. And, if you’re experiencing symptoms like confusion, dizziness, difficult breathing, and a persistent, productive cough, then head toward lower altitudes immediately and seek medical attention.
Ultimately, it’s easy to brush off something like AMS, particularly when you’re excited about taking a trip to the mountains for some much-needed escape. But, as we’ve covered here, AMS can quickly put a damper on any vacation, and you can take a few simple steps to ensure you’re ready to hit the slopes with confidence. As for getting through those moguls? We’d suggest some lessons…and a helmet. You got this.