By Russ and Tiña De Maris
A recent survey asked RVtravel.com readers, “Are you affected by altitude sickness?” The largest response, an amazing 67 percent, affirmed that no, altitude sickness didn’t affect them. Perhaps we should have asked, “Have you ever traveled to a high elevation and been affected by altitude sickness?” We put it that way, because the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) reminds Americans, “Everyone is at risk for high-altitude illness.”
Just for the record, “altitude sickness,” “high altitude illness” or “acute mountain sickness” is just a nasty side effect of being at a high elevation due to an insufficient amount of oxygen found at those levels. The symptoms are many, and a sufferer may not show all of them. They’ve been described, variously, as like having the flu, a hangover, or even carbon monoxide poisoning. Here’s a symptoms list: Headache, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, light headedness, nausea, weakness, tiredness, difficulty sleeping, dizziness and clumsiness.
Those are some of the early symptoms, and things can get worse. Disorientation, tremors, vomiting, staggering, loss of balance, fainting, blue fingertips and lips, even a loss of consciousness. At elevations above 8,000 feet, patients can develop high-altitude pulmonary edema. Fluids accumulate in the lungs and if not treated quickly, can kill the patient.
“But I won’t be going to that kind of an elevation,” some say. Don’t let the lower elevations fool you. One of our readers, Rosemary, related her experience on visiting the West after an RV trip from New York. In Wyoming, Rosemary’s niece was giving a drive tour near Jackson (elevation 6,337 feet). She was excited for her aunt because right ahead was a bear crossing the road. Says Rosemary, “I could not even raise my head to look, I was sitting in the backseat feeling just miserable. Thought I was getting sick.” It wasn’t until Rosemary found some literature discussing altitude sickness did she make the connection between her misery and the elevation at which she was traveling.
Even lower elevations can be troublesome – so much so that a guide page for visitors to Colorado makes this note: “Visitors from lower elevations may feel a range of symptoms from the altitude, even at elevations as low as 5,000 ft.” That runs along with advice given by readers Al & Sharon. Referring to our poll, one of them commented, “I selected NO I am not affected by altitude sickness. HOWEVER, I don’t go from 2000′ to 9000′ [without] spending a few days at about 6000′ before moving higher.”
And that, in a nutshell, is the first order of advice for those who plan on visiting higher elevations. Here are the suggestions from healthcommunities.com on beating health problems when visiting a higher elevation:
“Acclimatize and take it easy. Spend your first day at high altitudes relaxing. Avoid even moderate exercise until you get accustomed to the new heights.
“Do not smoke and avoid drinking alcohol. Smoking and alcohol consumption increase the risk of dehydration and decrease respiration rate during sleep and can worsen symptoms of altitude sickness.
“Drink extra water. Drink as much as you can to remain properly hydrated, at least three to four quarts. Your urine should be clear and copious. Avoid alcoholic beverages. The fast, deep breathing you must do at higher altitudes will tend to dehydrate you, an effect that alcohol intensifies.
“Eat foods that are high in carbohydrates.
“Get headache relief. Acetaminophen or an NSAID (such as ibuprofen) can be taken for headache.
“Don’t go up until symptoms go down. If you start showing symptoms of moderate altitude sickness, don’t go any higher until they decrease—or descend a few hundred feet to a lower altitude.”
Some folks with certain health conditions are more susceptible to health issues when going to higher elevations. These include folks with heart problems and lung or respiratory conditions. If you’re planning a high-level road trip, consult your physician before hitting the road. And if you’re a diabetic, monitor your blood glucose closely. Sometimes the symptoms of high-altitude sickness can mimic low or high blood sugar conditions.
Seeing the world from up above can be a wonderful experience. Just make sure you take care of yourself and your traveling companions by preparing for your trip to avoid any health hazards of high elevation travel.