Issues to consider when traveling to an alpine environment
From air density and dryness to lower oxygen levels, visiting high-altitude destinations can be tough for some people
For the Steamboat Pilot & Today
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Visiting high-altitude destinations like Steamboat Springs often includes boundless recreational opportunities and beautiful scenery, but sometimes alpine destinations also deliver health challenges that can interrupt the itinerary.
At 6,732 feet, Steamboat Springs is about 1,500 feet higher than Denver. The top of the ski area is 10,568 feet. Anyone coming from sea level is likely going to notice some altitude-related symptoms, said Dr. Jason Sigmon, an otolaryngologist at UCHealth Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic in Steamboat Springs.
“Even for people coming from the Front Range, the elevation change can make a big enough difference,” he said. “For people who are traveling from much lower elevations who have not spent much or any time in an alpine environment, almost all will experience changes such as minor dryness of the nose, not getting as restful sleep, changes in normal exercise tolerance or maybe getting tired more easily.”
Here are some of the issues to consider before and during any trip to a Colorado mountain town.
Lower atmospheric pressure, thinner air, less oxygen
As elevation gets higher, the atmospheric pressure decreases, which equals less oxygen and thinner air.
Thinner air refers to less water molecules held in the air as humidity, so there’s increased dryness that accompanies the lower oxygen and pressure levels.
“Those changes in barometric pressure predominately impact ears and sinuses,” Sigmon said. “Many visitors will have minimal nuisance-type symptoms that don’t impact their recreating — they’re just bothered by the symptoms.”
One symptom might be diminished exercise tolerance while at altitude. Anyone trying to do the same exercises or activities they enjoy at lower altitudes will likely notice a shortness of breath more quickly and frequently at a higher elevation.
“They may find that just walking upstairs or across the room becomes tiresome,” Sigmon said. “This can be frustrating.”
Those at higher risk from altitude-related complications
Anyone who has any cardiac health issues, especially recent issues such as heart attack or stroke, should always visit with their primary care or specialist provider before traveling to altitude. The same goes for anyone taking blood-thinning medication.
Families traveling with newborns or infants should consider speaking with their pediatrician before traveling to an alpine environment.
Other conditions that could prove challenging at higher altitudes include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma and sleep apnea.
“If you have sleep apnea, make sure you travel with your CPAP machine and recognize that there may be some challenges to sleep because of the lower pressure,” Sigmon said. “Even for those without sleep apnea, people will often recall when they return home that they had difficulty sleeping at the higher altitude.”
Remedies for altitude-related common conditions
For those struggling to equalize pressure in the middle of the ear — meaning the ears won’t “pop” back to normal — when common remedies such as chewing gum or yawning don’t work, it might be time to visit a doctor.
“That’s what we’re here for,” Sigmon said. “UCHealth Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic is open Monday-Friday and we work closely with the emergency department at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center to provide specialized care for patients as necessary.”
Nasal dryness and nose bleeds are common in alpine environments, especially during the winter when the air is colder and dryer. The membranes lining the nose can swell with nasal dryness, leading to congestion, sinus pain and even nosebleeds.
Sigmon recommends saline rinses and humidifiers — which many rental properties provide — to help your nose until it gets used to the dryer air. Covering your face while outside during winter months also helps recirculate the humidified air from your breath.
For mountaineers, acclimatization is part of a normal climbing routine. That’s why people who climb Mt. Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, must spend time in base camps along the route in order for their bodies to properly adjust to the air pressure and lower oxygen levels.
While spending time in Steamboat at 6,732 feet is hardly the same as heading to Everest (29,029 feet), it could be helpful to spend a night somewhere along the Front Range before heading to Steamboat or other mountain towns, Sigmon said.
Without any acclimatization before arriving, remember to take it easy once you’re here. Drink plenty of water and don’t overdo it on the recreation side of things right out of the gate.
“We don’t want anybody to be afraid of coming to the mountains,” Sigmon said, “but it’s important to keep these things in mind in order to have a safe and fun visit.”
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