Altitude Illness

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By Marcus Woolf

If you’re heading out for a ski or snowboard vacation – and you live at a low elevation – there’s a chance your trip could become one big headache – literally.

Altitude illness strikes untold numbers of skiers and snowboarders, and it typically occurs when people move quickly from low altitudes to high altitudes where there is less oxygen in the air. The primary symptoms of altitude illness are a bad headache and a general feeling of malaise, and it tends to strike when people are above 8,000 feet of elevation, according to Chris Van Tilburg, MD, editor emeritus for Wilderness Medicine Magazine, produced by the Wilderness Medical Society.

Tilburg says skiers who live at low altitude are especially susceptible, because they arrive at the ski area and quickly ascend to high elevations without allowing time to acclimate.

“People will fly from the East Coast or West Coast to Wyoming or Colorado, and sometimes the same day jump on a lift, and get to between 7,000 and 12,000 feet skiing,” he says.

Fortunately, you can take the following steps to avoid altitude illness:

• Stay hydrated and get plenty of rest. “Hydrating two and three days before your trip is a great technique,” says Tilburg. Keep in mind that at high altitude your body needs more fluids than it does closer to sea level, so drink more water than usual before and during your trip. Also, fatigue can make you more vulnerable to getting sick at high altitude, so it’s not wise to stay up all night packing before you fly and then immediately hit the slopes when you get to the ski area.

• Medicines can help. Tilburg says acetazolamide (Diamox is a common brand) works very well in warding off altitude illness. “It stimulates your nighttime respiration so you get loaded up with oxygen at night,” he says. Typically, you take it two days before your vacation, and then one day after you’ve reached your altitude. Ibuprofen is effective in preventing altitude illness, Tilburg adds.

• Sleep at a moderately high altitude before you hit the slopes. If you sleep at an altitude between 5,000 feet and 7,000 feet before you climb higher, you’ll give your body time to acclimate. “I had one patient who flew from Wisconsin to Winter Park, Colorado, every year, and she eventually had to just spend one night in Denver at 5,000 feet, and she was fine,” says Tilburg.

If you do get altitude illness while on the mountain, the first thing to do is move to a lower elevation, so head to the lodge. Then, drink some water and take ibuprofen. “If you feel fine after a half hour, it might be OK to go back up on the mountain,” says Tilburg. “If you don’t feel better, you should call it a day, and it should pass by the next day.”

The good thing is that altitude illness won’t likely ruin your whole trip. “The majority of people have it the first day, and then it never bothers them again for the rest of their trip,” says Tilburg.

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Veteran journalists Wendy Geister and Marcus Woolf launched The Adventure Post to share their passion for travel and outdoor adventure. They chronicle their journeys to inspire others to explore and provide insider tips that steer people toward richer travel experiences. The Adventure Post also includes contributions from other experienced travelers, as well as detailed gear reviews and reports on trends in outdoor recreation and adventure travel.

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