Why does traveling to areas of high altitude cause health concerns?
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
What are some of the illness that can occur?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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
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?
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.