Preventing and Surviving Altitude Sickness

If you’ve ever watched a Denver Broncos game, you may have noticed two things: First, the Broncos seem to play better on their home turf. Second, their visiting opponents often sit on the sideline huffing oxygen from a green tank.

That’s because of Denver’s elevation, about a mile above sea level. The decreased atmospheric pressure in the “Mile High City” affects an athlete’s ability to perform. While most people won’t notice much of a difference, if you travel to the height of the Rocky Mountains, above 8,000 feet, the decreasing pressure might result in what’s called Altitude Sickness.

What is Altitude Sickness

As you ascend in elevation, the atmospheric pressure drops. In other words, there is less air pushing down on you. Even though there’s still 20% oxygen in the atmosphere, the drop in pressure means that this oxygen isn’t being pushed into your red blood cells.

While your body will eventually get used to this change, the process of acclimatizing is no fun. Symptoms of altitude sickness include dizziness, headache or migraines, nausea, lethargy, loss of appetite, and sleep disturbances.

Suffice it to say, if you’re planning to visit the Rocky summits, you’ll also need a plan for preventing these uncomfortable symptoms.

How to Prevent Altitude Sickness

Before you head to Aspen or any of the tall mountains of Colorado, take a day or two in Denver to acclimatize to the altitude. The state’s capital is low enough that you won’t experience all the symptoms of altitude sickness, but high enough to get your body to start producing the necessary enzymes and hormones to survive high altitude.

Altitude sickness is worse for people arriving from areas of lower elevation. If you fly in from New York City, for instance, your body will not respond well if you drive straight from the Denver airport to the sky-scraping mountains. Give your body a day or two to gradually adjust.

Surviving Altitude Sickness

If you don’t have the luxury of a few days in Denver, you may not be able to avoid altitude sickness when you ascend the mountains. Fortunately, there are a few over-the-counter medications that can help you survive the miserable symptoms.

Excedrin, which contains caffeine, works best if you suffer from headaches. You can also take Dramamine and Tylenol to reduce pain and nausea. Diamox, a prescription-only drug, also helps alleviate a variety symptoms.

Whatever you take for your pains, be sure to drink lots of water throughout the day, and don’t drink alcohol while you’re adjusting. Most altitude sickness symptoms last about 36 hours, so although it might feel like it, you won’t be feeling crummy forever.


Joshua K. Lopez

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