Altitude Sickness

Prevention: The Best Altitude Sickness Remedy

After our trip to Big Sky Resort this Spring and having altitude sickness the first few days, I wanted to share an overview of prevention, remedies and treatments.  Being aware of  this information before you travel could help you feel better, ski better and have the amazing ski vacation you dreamed of.  

Before your high altitude ski trip, study the symptoms and learn the altitude sickness remedies.  Even better, learn the tried and true altitude sickness prevention methods.

Altitudionous Attraction

Few skiers can resist the lure of the high alpine environment.  After all, who can say “no” to deep powder and endless elevation?  Carving the colossal slopes of the Rockies and Alps will be a memorable experience, but a bout of altitude sickness will turn your trip into a nightmare.

High Is a Relative Measurement

There are definitions for “high,” “very high” and “extremely high” altitude.  But, your own perception of elevation depends on where you live.  For example, a skier coming from sea level might experience slight twinges of altitude sickness in Denver, which sits at 5,000 feet but a skier from Denver may not feel symptoms of altitude sickness until elevations of 7,000 feet or more.  Since the symptoms of altitude sickness have the greatest effect on lowlanders, we are using the conservative Mayo Clinic definition:

High: 4921-11,483 ft

Very High: 11,483 – 18,045

Extremely High: Over 18,045ft

Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

In 1991, the International Hypoxia Symposium identified three stages of altitude sickness:

Symptoms of the first stage are called Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS:

  • Appetite loss:  you turn down your favorite cup of cocoa
  • Nausea or vomiting:  you might notice this while riding the lifts
  • Fatigue and muscular weakness:  your legs feel like giving out
  • Feeling lightheaded
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Confusion
  • Altered Gait:  your skiing gets sloppy

Acute mountain sickness serves as your first warning. At this point, some basic altitude sickness remedies will prevent further damage:Hydration for Altitude Sickness

  • Hydration: Dehydration often accompanies AMS. That explains why drinking water is one of the most essential altitude sickness remedies.  Personally, I found that the more water I drank the better I started to feel.
  • Descent: Descent provides an effective treatment of altitude sickness.  If available, download on the gondola.  If not, find the easiest trail back to the base area.  You can always ski higher and harder tomorrow.
  • Resorts that have massage or spa treatments will offer a high altitude massage.  This was not a fun or relaxing experience for me as the therapist manipulates pressure points to alleviate symptoms, but it certainly did help and by morning I was feeling great.

Don’t ignore these altitude sickness remedies. If you do, you will reach the second stage, called High Altitude Cerebral Edema, or Hace. Symptoms include the following:

  • A stagger, as if inebriated
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Hallucinations
  • Limb paralysis

If HACE occurs while you are on the mountain, your instructor or friends will need to call the ski patrol. The patrol will take you to the clinic, where doctors will administer oxygen.

High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, called HAPE, is the most life-threatening form of AMS. HAPE symptoms include:

  • Difficulty breathing, even at rest.
  • Extreme fatigue.
  • Complete disorientation.
  • Cough, often with pinkish emissions.
  • Gurgling in the throat.
  • Tightness in the chest.
  • Lips and fingernails turning blue (although these are sometimes symptoms of hypothermia).

HAPE usually requires hospitalization.

Treatment of Altitude Sickness

If your altitude sickness results in hospitalization, your treatment will involve bed rest, hydration, oxygen and a variety of medications. Your doctor will monitor your pulse oxygen level.  Some hospitals will not let you leave until you reach a 90 percent oxygen level.

Prevention is the best treatment of oxygen guidelines. Follow these guidelines for a healthy and enjoyable high country ski trip:

  • Acclimate:  Spend your first day exploring the town and getting used to the thinner air.
  • Abstain form Alcohol:  Alcohol contributes to dehydration, which worsens the symptoms of altitude sickness.
  • Sleep Low:  Sure, ski-in, ski-out is fun, but it’s harder to sleep at higher elevation.  If you are susceptible to altitude sickness, choose an off-mountain, lower elevation venue for lodging.

Have you found any tricks or treatments that work as prevention or remedies for you?  Have you been hospitalized for altitude sickness?  Has altitude sickness ever ruined a ski vacation for you?  

Additional information can be found here.