How to Stay Healthy at Altitude

How to Stay Healthy at Altitude

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

Pam Westfall is a registered nurse at Vail Valley MedicalCenter. As an employee health nurse for the center she offers newhires at VVMC resources for making the altitude adjustment.

"Some who have lived at lower elevations may experience a periodof physical adjustment to the higher elevation" said Westfall.

Here are some tips to pass along to visiting friends andfamily.

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

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

What are the most common high altitude illnesssymptoms?
The most common problem is acute mountain sickness which canstart within several hours of arrival at altitude. Symptoms of AMSinclude headache nausea insomnia fatigue strange dreams andlethargy. Symptoms will usually improve within several days withrest and hydration. People should consult a physician immediatelyif they experience extreme shortness of breath a wet gurglingcough chest pain or any symptoms of confusion or altered mentalstatus as these can be indications of the life-threateningconditions of HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema) or HACE (highaltitude cerebral edema). Occasionally people can develop chronicaltitude sickness which usually presents with persistent shortnessof breath or chest pain. If you experience these symptoms youshould seek medical care.

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

What is the recommended treatment for altitudesickness?
Treatment includes resting frequently during the first few days athigh altitude keeping any recreational activities at a loweraltitude the first day eating lightly drinking more liquids (notalcohol) and decreasing smoking. Aspirin Tylenol or mild sleepingmedication may help but barbiturates should be avoided. Just kickback and enjoy the Rocky Mountain views!

How can people prevent high altitudesickness?
Hang out in Denver for a couple of days before heading to thehills. Allow for frequent rest periods as needed to adjust to thealtitude over a few days. Drink a lot of water and caffeine-freebeverages. Avoiding alcohol is imperative to help with altitudesickness for those who suffer from headaches nausea andinsomnia.

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

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

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

How do you care for skin at a highelevation?
To keep your skin hydrated and to avoid drying and itchingconsider using a moisturizing soap for bathing. Apply lotion afterbathing to lock in the moisture and keep your skin healthy. This isimportant year-round but especially in the cold winter months whenthe low humidity and temperatures are harder on the skin. Don'tforget the lip balm.

How is digestion affected by high altitude?
Some people may develop a full feeling sooner than anticipatedwhen eating a usual portion size as well as experiencing a "gassystomach" even when eating foods not usually associated with theseside effects. Usually these symptoms will pass in time afteradjustment to the altitude. Eating meals higher in carbohydratescan ease altitude sickness. Increase your iron intake andconsciously take deep breaths throughout the day to help youradjustment.

Will being at a high altitude affect mymedication? 
Barbiturates sedatives and alcohol should be used with caution.Blood thinners also can act differently at altitude and anyonetaking these medications should consult with a physician and havetheir INR/prothrombin times monitored closely when they firstarrive at altitude. Lasix or other diuretics can also cause you tobe dehydrated or lead to electrolyte imbalances and people onthese medications should consult with a physician if theyexperience any light-headedness or dizziness as this may be aindication that the medication needs to be adjusted.

Can being at high altitude impact myheart? 
It has been found that symptoms of heart diseases and disorderscan appear more quickly at high altitude due to the low oxygen. Itis not that altitude changes your heart health but brings outsymptoms that may lead to heart problems.

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

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