Altitude Sickness and Prevention
And how to treat it once it sets in.
Altitude Sickness and Prevention
How to prevent mountain sickness at elevation
From the moment you reach any of InvitedHome's rental destinations the elevation is already 7,000 feet above sea level. If you make your way to the top of our highest destination, Telluride resort’s highest lift, you’ll be at 12,255 feet above sea level. To put that in perspective, that’s about the same elevation as the tops of Mount Fuji in Japan, Mt. Cook in New Zealand, and the Teide volcano in Spain.
High elevation can cause serious health issues. Altitude sickness is especially tricky because it is utterly indiscriminate: world-class athletes are just as susceptible to it as mildly out-of-shape weekend warriors. That’s because it’s not ability or experience that dictates whether or not it hits you—it’s whether you have any of the six genes identified as the culprit for causing altitude sickness susceptibility and if you’ve given yourself time to acclimate. It's so unpredictable that even if you've had it once, that doesn't mean you'll have it again. And if you've never had it, it can still strike.
So if and when it hits, don’t panic, nor wonder how or why it could happen to you. It’s written in your genes, and there’s nothing you can do about that. What you can do, however, is learn to prevent it as best you can, or keep the symptoms from getting worse.
At InvitedHome, we work day in and day out at high altitudes. We've found that oxygen services are the quickest, most effective way to recover from a bout of altitude sickness.
Even before you feel any symptoms, you’ll likely notice the high elevation anytime you climb a flight of stairs or break into anything more than a walk. That feeling of being out of breath from these seemingly simple tasks? That’s because there’s about 30% less oxygen in the air at 9000ft.
Interesting fact: The air actually contains 20.9% oxygen at all altitudes. However, with lower atmospheric pressure in higher altitudes, the effective oxygen rate - the amount of oxygen you actually inhale into your lungs - is actually at about 14.8% of the air.
Think of it like this: With less pressure, the oxygen molecules -- and every molecule that makes up air -- can fly around with a little more freedom, and they aren’t pressed together as much. This lower density results in less oxygen making its way into your lungs with every breath, so to get the same amount of oxygen at 9,000ft as you would at sea level, you’ll need to take more breaths.
What are the most common symptoms of altitude sickness?
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid heart rate
- Sleepiness or sleeplessness
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
If it's going to hit, you’ll likely feel these symptoms between 6 and 24 hours after arriving in destination, and you can expect them to last for 1-2 days if they go untreated. After this period, your body will have adjusted to the higher elevation.
The National Institutes of Health estimate that depending on various factors, altitude sickness (or acute mountain sickness as it’s officially known) affects between 15% and 80% of people who ascend from low to high elevations. In one study, 38% of people experienced at least one symptom of altitude sickness at around 11,000 feet, though acute mountain sickness can be felt at altitudes as low as 8,000 feet.
The next level of altitude sickness is slightly more severe, and may occur if you don’t take any measures to address it. Still, these symptoms are rare, and are most often seen at altitudes higher than the highest point in Colorado. According to the Telluride Longevity Institute, symptoms worsen to this stage at 9,000ft in less than 1% of cases. Symptoms include:
- Loss of coordination
- Severe headache
- Chest pain
- Wet cough
How to Prevent Altitude Sickness
Acclimatization is the only tried and true way for anyone to prevent or mitigate the symptoms of altitude sickness. If it’s at all possible, or you know you’re susceptible to altitude sickness, consider spending an afternoon and night at a lower altitue, perhaps 3,000ft-5,000ft in the mountains. Even just this 12 to 24-hour period could help tremendously.
Yes, hydrate, but going overboard isn’t actually necessary, either, according to the Institute for Altitude Medicine (IAM). Rather than slamming several liters more per day, simply be aware of your intake, and consider adding 1 to 1.5 liters (a typical Nalgene bottle is one liter) per day while at altitude. Adding this to your daily water intake in the days before you travel can’t hurt, either.
Watch your alcohol
Alcohol is a diuretic, so any symptom that comes with dehydration (headache, rapid heart rate, nausea), could be exacerbated by elevation. This is true, and a good enough reason to just be aware of your body if you’re consuming alcohol at high altitudes. However, what’s not true is that you’ll become intoxicated faster at high altitude. Though often perpetuated by tourists in bars, several studies have determined the effects of alcohol are not more pronounced at higher altitudes. In reality, the mere fact of being at 12,000 feet, one study showed, was enough to slightly impair participants who hadn’t even had a drop to drink.
Bottom line: Be smart and responsible and drink water as well, just as you would any other time you’re consuming alcohol, and you shouldn’t have a problem.
Also note: The myth about drinking caffeine at elevation is similar. IAM states that it would require enormous amounts of caffeine from coffee and soda to cause adverse effects at altitude. Moreover, if you’re used to drinking 2-3 cups of coffee a day, cutting cold turkey could actually cause more problems. Everything in moderation.
If you know you’re susceptible to altitude sickness, you could consider taking the drug Diamox (Acetazolamide). Please be aware this drug isn’t used to treat symptoms of altitude sickness, in the way Tylenol could temporarily help with the pain of a headache, but rather it helps the body with the acclimatization process. Experts recommend starting Diamox 24 hours before arriving in Telluride, and continuing its use for 48 hours while in the destination.
Getting additional oxygen into your bloodstream is the most direct way to treat altitude sickness, and fortunately in most mountain locations, there’s plenty of ways to do this. Local shops sell small cans of 90% oxygen, or you can even have an oxygen concentrator delivered to your lodging. These machines deliver pure oxygen to your system by simply breathing through an apparatus. Depending on a few factors like weight and severity of altitude sickness, you can expect relief between 15 minutes and one hour after starting the in-home treatment. If you’re curious about this, check out Oxygen Telluride to learn more.
While the only way to truly get rid of the condition is to get to lower altitudes, that’s not always possible. Taking over-the-counter painkillers like Tylenol and Advil can help with the headache and overall discomfort, but remember you’re only masking the symptoms this way. Still, this is an effective method, especially when paired with taking pure oxygen and staying hydrated.
We're here to help
If you have any more concerns about the elevation in our mountain destinations or altitude sickness, please get in touch with us. We’d love to help you plan ahead so you prepare to get the most out of your vacation, and not spend it recovering in bed.