Altitude Sickness

Recognize the symptoms and lower your chances of altitude sickness so you can enjoy more of your time in high elevations.

The elevations of some of the communities we serve can reach up to 12,000 feet, which means the air is thinner and contains less oxygen than at lower elevations. If you’re coming from a state where elevations are much lower, you may experience altitude sickness (also called altitude illness) while traveling to elevations of 8,000 feet or above.

If at all possible, it is suggested you spend an extra day or two at an elevation of 5,000-7,000 feet before attempting activities at higher elevations. This adjustment period will give your body a chance to adapt to the change in altitude gradually. 

Preventing or lessening altitude sickness

Altitude sickness can affect anyone, regardless of age or health. To avoid or lessen your symptoms of altitude sickness, try to avoid alcohol, sleeping pills, caffeine and narcotic pain medicine during your first days at higher elevations. Alcohol and drugs can escalate symptoms of altitude sickness. Drink plenty of fluids and try to acclimate to the altitude. For headaches, mild analgesics such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen can help, or a doctor may prescribe you medication to reduce your symptoms. Note: Vigorous physical exercise can increase your risk of developing altitude sickness.

Your risk of suffering a severe sunburn also increases at higher elevations because of decreased oxygen. To protect yourself, always use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15, and wear a hat and sunglasses.

If you develop a more severe case of altitude sickness, you’ll be treated with oxygen therapy and you may need to be transported to a lower elevation.

Symptoms of altitude sickness

The symptoms of mild altitude sickness are similar to the flu and can last three or four days before clearing up.

Symptoms can include:

  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling of hands and feet
  • Rapid pulse
  • Trouble sleeping

If you feel you’re suffering from the symptoms of altitude sickness, see a doctor immediately.

Extreme altitude sickness may result in life-threatening conditions caused by fluid accumulation in the lungs (high-altitude pulmonary edema, or HAPE) or swelling of the brain (high-altitude cerebral edema, or HACE). HAPE is characterized by breathlessness and can also cause a high fever and coughing up of frothy saliva. HACE can cause uncharacteristic behavior, excessive emotion or violence, drowsiness and the loss of consciousness. If you experience severe symptoms or are feeling seriously ill, go to lower altitude immediately and seek medical attention.