Baylor College of Medicine

Tips for preventing altitude sickness


If summer travel plans include high altitude conditions, it is important to take proper precautionary measures to prevent sickness, said a travel medicine expert from Baylor College of Medicine.

"People who do not often travel to high altitudes may not be prepared for their body's reaction," said Dr. Jane Corboy, associate professor of family and community medicine.

Corboy said most travelers come down with the less serious, mild form of altitude sickness but there are more serious types that can cause permanent damage.


Mild altitude sickness


Travelers going from sea level to destinations such as Denver, at about 5,000 feet, may have mild altitude sickness conditions for the first day or two, Corboy said. "The body has to adjust to the new height."

Symptoms are similar to the flu and might include headaches, poor appetite, breathlessness or fatigue.

"It is important to drink adequate amounts of fluids to help the body adjust," said Corboy. "Avoid excessive alcohol or caffeine, though a little bit of caffeine might help with a headache. Just do not go overboard."

Also, stay away from heavy foods. Stick to light carbohydrates like pasta, she said.

"Taking an anti-inflammatory such as Advil, or Aleve might also help," said Corboy.


Severe altitude sickness


Travelers trying to conquer more steep heights, such as 14,000 feet, are more at risk for developing one of the two forms of serious altitude sickness.

High altitude pulmonary edema, or HAPE, is a progression of the breathlessness feeling. It is caused by a dilation of blood vessels in the lungs to allow more oxygen to flow. If the blood vessels leak, fluid can fill the lungs and could potentially cause heart failure.

This condition could be characterized with continued shortness of breath, and "frothy" cough, Corboy said.

High altitude cerebral edema, or HACE, is a progression of the headache symptoms. It is caused by dilation of the blood vessels in the brain. If it persists, the blood vessels can leak, causing the brain to swell and potentially leading to a coma.

Watch for a persistent headache and change in mental status such as drowsiness or decreased coordination, said Corboy.

"If any of these symptoms are noted, the traveler should descend down 1,000 or 2,000 feet to help get the body back to normal, and should not attempt to ascend until all symptoms are completely resolved" she said.

Severe altitude sickness is not common in heights 8,000 feet or below.


Medication can treat, prevent


There is one medication – called Diamox® -- available to treat and prevent symptoms of altitude sickness, Corboy said.

The medication works by regulating the carbon dioxide in a person's blood, increasing ventilation. "The body needs this ventilation when traveling to high heights," said Corboy.

Travelers to high altitudes, both new and experienced travelers with history of altitude sickness, can take this to prevent symptoms from occurring.

"If the body is not used to traveling at higher altitudes, it is hard to determine the risk of getting sick," said Corboy. "It is not related to fitness, age or gender."

People with asthma or other lung problems might be at a higher risk of developing high altitude pulmonary edema, Corboy said. Young people, she added, are at a higher risk for developing high altitude cerebral edema because their brains are a larger size.


Gradual ascents


When traveling or hiking above 10,000 feet, avoid increasing your sleeping elevations more than 1,000 feet per day, Corboy said.

"If a climber is trying to reach 14,000 feet, once they get to 10,000 feet they should not stop and sleep any higher than 11,000 feet the first night, 12,000 the next night, etc," said Corboy. "If they reach 14,000 feet, they should climb back down to sleep."

This allows the body to adapt to the new altitude, Corboy said.

"There are beautiful heights in this world that many will want to aspire to climb," said Corboy. "Whether the goal is Denver or the Himalayan mountains, it is important to take the necessary precautions to avoid getting sick."

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