Getting High While Staying Healthy

One of the ski resorts in Colorado had a slogan, “The air is like wine.” They were selling the clean mountain air, or the intoxicating effects of being in an expensive, grand resort, or maybe they just want to plant an idea that having another glass of wine while gazing upon their vistas was enough to keep us coming back for more.

For others, the intoxicating effect is not so pleasant. This is mountain sickness, also called altitude sickness. During our summer vacations, we rush to visit high altitude locations without having time to acclimate to the higher altitudes. Many often fly to mountainous regions, where it is possible to go from sea level to over 8,000 feet in less than a day. Once there, we embark on packing in as much fun, sun and adventure we can immediately without giving the altitude it’s due.

Altitude sickness typically affects 20% to 30% of travelers going above 6,000 feet. This can affect anyone—from ordinary people to highly trained athletes. For some a headache is a minor inconvenience and easily treated with acetaminophen. For others, a rapid pulse, nausea, sensation of difficulty catching our breath, or difficulty sleeping is extremely troublesome. Go above 14,000 feet without giving your body time to adjust and the symptoms are downright dangerous.

Acclimatization is the key. For most of us this means limiting our activities when arriving at high altitude. Taking one to three days to adjust before engaging in strenuous activities (running, hiking, cycling) is valuable. It’s important to drink plenty of fluids to stay well-hydrated, as the altitude also increases sun exposure. Other pills are available that treat the specific symptoms, but I’m not a big fan. It’s difficult to know how someone will react to these medications, or how to gauge their effects without causing other problems. Just take it slow and easy in the beginning when playing in rarified air and you’ll be able to stay high and healthy.

About Steve P. Sanders

A general internist writing and sharing ideas and art.

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