Thursday, November 6, 2014

Tips for staying healthy when traveling to high altitudes

If your vacation plans include hiking, biking, or fishing in mountains or a part of the world that is higher elevation than your normal home situation, be prepared for altitude sickness. With less oxygen in the air, symptoms of headache or dizziness may start to appear at about 8,000 feet elevation, although altitude or mountain sickness can occur even lower in susceptible people.
From Arequipa, Peru at 8,000 feet, we traveled into the Highlands.
Our guide kept telling us to move slowly and conserve energy.
Acute mountain sickness (AMS) is the most common type and causes symptoms similar to those caused by an alcohol hangover, usually within a day or so of arriving at a higher altitude. Symptoms may include headache, tiredness, lightheadedness, loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, and nausea.

For the 25 to 40 percent of people who get mild symptoms of acute mountain sickness, Dr. Eric Johnson, globally recognized expert on high-altitude medicine, says to rest and stay where you are until you feel better. “Do not  travel or climb to a higher altitude until all symptoms resolve.  Moving to a lower altitude can also help if symptoms do not go away in a day or two,” Johnson adds. 
Altitude sickness can occur in
summer or winter.
The good news, especially for people with limited vacation time, is that a common over-the-counter medication—ibuprofen—could help reduce the symptoms.  A study by the American College of Emergency Physicians reports that people who took ibuprofen before, during, and after an ascent were far less likely to develop symptoms of AMS.
“You don’t want to feel horrible for 15-20 percent of your vacation,” says Grant Lipman, MD, whose research at Stanford University corroborates the effect of ibuprofen.

More serious than acute mountain sickness are high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), both of which are less common but require descending to a lower altitude immediately. HACE involves swelling of the brain and results in trouble walking normally, extreme weakness, confusion, and/or irritability. HAPE involves fluid build-up in the lungs and may not show up for two to four days. Symptoms include coughing, feeling breathless, and trouble walking uphill. If symptoms are severe, get medical attention immediately.

Even at 18,000 feet elevation, vendors are selling their wares.
However, they are accustomed to lower oxygen levels in the air.
For any type of altitude sickness, breathing supplemental oxygen, if available, can provide quick relief. We’ve found that  hotel staff in high altitudes commonly supply oxygen in tanks for guests. Having experienced mild AMS myself, I know that this is often sufficient to relieve symptoms.
Prescription medications used under a doctor’s supervision can help prevent and treat mountain sickness.
Signs identified volcanoes that could be
seen from this high point. The air is definitely
thinner at 18,000 feet. 
Prevention is best, of course, so give your body time to adjust. Avoid moving quickly to high altitudes; plan to stretch out ascending over several days.  If you are hiking, biking, or climbing, avoid difficult physical activities for the first few days. When hiking to a higher altitude during the day, go back to a slightly lower altitude for sleep each night.  Skip alcohol and sleeping pills. Most likely your body will adjust if you allow enough time, so you can enjoy your travels.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

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