Medical Issues when traveling at Altitude

 

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Medical Issues when traveling at Altitude

October 15, 2014

 

 

Why does traveling to areas of high altitude cause health concerns?

One thing to understand if you are traveling to a location that is significantly higher than sea level is that there are lower amounts of available oxygen to breathe.  Contrary to popular belief, this is not because there is less oxygen in the air but because of lower atmospheric pressure.

 

What are some of the illness that can occur?

In its mildest form people will experience decreased exercise tolerance.  In more significant situations, a person would experience what is called Acute Mountain Sickness. At higher levels of altitude, there are serious medical conditions such as High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (fluid in the lungs) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (fluid buildup in the brain).  Both of these conditions are life threatening and require immediate medical attention and a return to lower altitude.

 

What are the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness?

Acute Mountain Sickness includes the symptoms of headache, insomnia, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting. These symptoms usually occur about 12 hours after reaching a higher altitude and often go away with time and supportive measures.

 

How high is too high?

This depends on many factors.  Of course if you have underlying heart disease or lung problems, even smaller degrees of elevation can pose a problem.  For someone who is physically fit, one can travel to several thousand feet without major difficulty.  Of course, it is difficult to predict who will develop Acute Mountain Sickness and even those who are physically fit can suffer.  It is best to discuss with you doctor what your travel plans are. Your doctor may need to order some medical tests to determine if there are any special concerns for you.

 

I don’t have any major medical problems. What should I be concerned about?

Very often, the two largest problems, aside from those mentioned above include dehydration and sun exposure.  Be sure to drink plenty of fluids and wear extra sunblock to accommodate the increased UV rays that one is exposed to at higher altitudes.

 

What can I do to prepare?

In addition to hydration and sunscreen, you should limit alcohol intake and eat small meals that are lower in protein and higher in carbohydrates.  There are some medications that are popular to use in preparation for travel to altitude but the results from these medications are mixed and it is best to proceed with caution when taking any medication.

 

Perhaps the best way to prepare is to use “acclimatization” which means gradually going to higher altitude.  For example, if you plan to go to a Colorado Ski Resort that is at 9000 feet, you may want to spend some time in Denver first (which is at 5000 feet) to let your body gradually get used to the effects of altitude.

 

Are there other situations that are similar to altitude?

The most common situation that can cause problems similar to altitude is air travel.  It is extremely unlikely that you will develop the more severe cases of altitude illness since air travel is typically several hours at the most.  However, airplane cabins are pressurized only to about 8000 ft. Some people with heart or lung problems need additional oxygen when traveling by air.  Additionally, air travel can represent other health hazards.  Again, it is best if you discuss your specific situation with your doctor to determine what your individual risks are and what steps you can take to stay healthy.

 

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