Ah, spring is upon us with summer not far behind. With the onset of summer comes the flatlanders to our high-altitude paradise with the obligatory visits to the ER for those wondering: “Who hid the oxygen.” I thought the topic of altitude sickness might be of interest to those of you who are expecting visitors this summer, as a trip to Teller County can be a very unpleasant experience for some from a lower altitude.
Can you recall your first visit to Teller County? Does any of the following sound familiar: headache, fatigue and weakness, rapid pulse, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, light-headedness, dizziness, difficulty sleeping, increased urination and flu-like symptoms? Chances are you were suffering from High Altitude Sickness, also known as Acute Mountain Sickness. AMS is a mild form of altitude sickness that affects 20 to 30 percent of all visitors to Colorado. Most people experience the symptoms within the first three days after arriving at a high altitude with the symptoms usually dissipating by the fourth day.
There is no difference in the percentage of oxygen at sea level and higher altitudes. The air is comprised of 21 percent oxygen everywhere on the planet. As one ascends through the atmosphere, however, barometric pressure decreases and every breath contains fewer and fewer molecules of oxygen. There are certain normal physiologic changes that occur in most people who go to a higher altitude. Hyperventilation, shortness of breath during exertion, increased urination, changed breathing pattern and frequent awakening at night are to be expected.
There are no specific factors such as age, sex or physical condition that predict susceptibility to altitude sickness. Some people get it and some don’t. Certain diseases, however, can make going to a high altitude dangerous. Those with lung disease, emphysema or severe heart disease are at greater risk. The majority of those who experience mild AMS get better with no treatment at all. People with moderate to severe symptoms need to seek medical assistance.
The No. 1 suggestion for avoiding AMS is “staging” in changing altitudes. For example, if you are coming from sea level, it is better to spend the night in Denver or Colorado Springs prior to coming to Teller County. If you’re considering a trip to Cripple Creek or up Barr Trail to the Summit, it would be prudent to spend a few days in Woodland Park or Divide before heading out. There are medications that can help one prepare for higher altitude. You may want to suggest your company talk to their doctor about these pharmaceuticals.
Once you arrive at a higher altitude, avoid alcohol, sleeping pills and narcotics as they intensify symptoms and drink plenty of water. It is, also, advisable to avoid strenuous exercise the first few days and do not ascend to a higher altitude until your body has acclimated. Home oxygen can relieve symptoms and is safe, cheap and easy to use. It can be used at night when symptoms are worse or as needed. And finally, if nothing is helping alleviate the symptoms or if the symptoms get worse, seek medical aid.
AMS can progress to High Altitude Cerebral Edema, which involves the build-up of fluid in the brain with symptoms of headache, dizziness, blurry vision and disorientation. This condition is rare but potentially fatal with descent to a lower elevation the only real treatment. High Altitude Pulmonary Edema typically occurs at higher elevations but can happen to anyone above 8,000 feet. The only way to alleviate HAPE is to descend — oxygen and descent are life-saving.
Help your company have an enjoyable experience this summer in Teller County. Be smart about the challenges of high altitude.