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How to Stay Healthy at Altitude

Pam Westfall

Moving on up isn't always so comfortable. High-altitude living can bring about physical stresses and it's important to assist your body in adjusting to mountain elevations.

A registered nurse at Vail Health offers new hires resources for making the altitude adjustment.

"Some who have lived at lower elevations may experience a period of physical adjustment to the higher elevation" she said.

Here are some tips to pass along to visiting friends and family.

Why does high altitude affect people?
At elevations more than 5280 feet above sea level people may start to feel the effects of altitude. This varies for every individual so some people may not feel effects until they reach elevations greater than 8000 feet. In Vail oxygen is 40 to 50 percent less dense than at sea level and has 50 to 80 percent less humidity on average.

Activities like busting up Kloser's Climb hiking Lake Creek or bouldering in Wolcott increase the oxygen demand on your body. And the higher your elevation the more oxygen you need.

What are the most common high altitude illness symptoms?
The most common problem is acute mountain sickness which can start within several hours of arrival at altitude. Symptoms of AMS include headache nausea insomnia fatigue strange dreams and lethargy. Symptoms will usually improve within several days with rest and hydration. People should consult a physician immediately if they experience extreme shortness of breath a wet gurgling cough chest pain or any symptoms of confusion or altered mental status as these can be indications of the life-threatening conditions of HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema) or HACE (high altitude cerebral edema). Occasionally people can develop chronic altitude sickness which usually presents with persistent shortness of breath or chest pain. If you experience these symptoms you should seek medical care.

How does high elevation affect dehydration?
Dehydration may be caused by the dry mountain air and an increased respiratory rate due to the lower oxygen content. This results in increased loss of body moisture which can be made greater with alcohol consumption. We like to say: Hydrate or die. Drink six to eight glasses of water a day and monitor the color of your urine.If it appears deeper yellow or amber drink more water to keep yourself hydrated.

What is the recommended treatment for altitude sickness?
Treatment includes resting frequently during the first few days at high altitude keeping any recreational activities at a lower altitude the first day eating lightly drinking more liquids (not alcohol) and decreasing smoking. Aspirin Tylenol or mild sleeping medication may help but barbiturates should be avoided. Just kickback and enjoy the Rocky Mountain views!

How can people prevent high altitude sickness?
Hang out in Denver for a couple of days before heading to the hills. Allow for frequent rest periods as needed to adjust to the altitude over a few days. Drink a lot of water and caffeine-free beverages. Avoiding alcohol is imperative to help with altitude sickness for those who suffer from headaches nausea and insomnia.

How does a change in elevation affect people with existing health difficulties?
People with chronic lung or heart disease may be affected adversely by the elevation. The decrease in oxygen alters body functions making it harder to breathe and forcing the heart to work more. Both respiratory rate and heart rate are increased.Avoid overexertion by adjusting your pace. It is always advisable to consult your family doctor before going on a high-altitude trip.If you find yourself having continued problems you should seek medical advice immediately.

How does high elevation contribute to sunburn?
There is less atmosphere to block out the sun's burning ultraviolet rays so sunburn occurs more readily. The effect is worsened by the sun reflecting off the snow and back onto the body.Don't underestimate the sun - look how close it is. Use sun block and reapply often. And hats are in.

How does high elevation affect eye health?
Hey wear your shades. The sun is more intense at the higher altitudes so wearing protective sunglasses is advised whether you're rafting skiing or playing disc golf. Use eye drops to moisturize dry itchy eyes if you're experiencing irritation.

How do you care for skin at a high elevation?
To keep your skin hydrated and to avoid drying and itching consider using a moisturizing soap for bathing. Apply lotion after bathing to lock in the moisture and keep your skin healthy. This is important year-round but especially in the cold winter months when the low humidity and temperatures are harder on the skin. Don't forget the lip balm.

How is digestion affected by high altitude?
Some people may develop a full feeling sooner than anticipated when eating a usual portion size as well as experiencing a "gassy stomach" even when eating foods not usually associated with these side effects. Usually these symptoms will pass in time after adjustment to the altitude. Eating meals higher in carbohydrates can ease altitude sickness. Increase your iron intake and consciously take deep breaths throughout the day to help your adjustment.

Will being at a high altitude affect my medication? 
Barbiturates sedatives and alcohol should be used with caution.Blood thinners also can act differently at altitude and anyone taking these medications should consult with a physician and have their INR/prothrombin times monitored closely when they first arrive at altitude. Lasix or other diuretics can also cause you to be dehydrated or lead to electrolyte imbalances and people on these medications should consult with a physician if they experience any light-headedness or dizziness as this may be an indication that the medication needs to be adjusted.

Can being at high altitude impact my heart? 
It has been found that symptoms of heart diseases and disorders can appear more quickly at high altitude due to the low oxygen. It is not that altitude changes your heart health but brings out symptoms that may lead to heart problems.

What symptoms at high altitude may show that I have heart problems?
Irregular heart beats and an irregular shortness of breath at this elevation may be indications that you should look into your heart health.

How can I maintain my heart health at this altitude?
Keeping your heart in shape is no different at this altitude than at lower altitudes. Exercise regularly eliminate smoking keep your body weight and cholesterol down and have your blood pressure checked at sea level as well as at altitude.
"Any exercise is good exercise" Gaul said. "It's really no different up here than anywhere else."