Tips for preventing altitude sickness when visiting the Colorado Rockies |

Tips for preventing altitude sickness when visiting the Colorado Rockies

Steamboat Resort has one of the lowest elevation base areas in Colorado, but visitors who travel here from sea level might still experience a mild headache, one of the signs of altitude illness. (Photo by John F. Russell) 

AVON — For some visitors to the Colorado Rockies, the first sign that they are “not in Kansas anymore” is a look at the majestic mountains.

But for an unfortunate few, it can be the onset of a devastating headache.

Altitude illness is an equal-opportunity disease, affecting anyone from the very young to the old and from the couch potato to the most athletic.

Dr. Charles Tuft, an altitude expert with Alpine Mobile Physicians, said altitude illness can affect up to 25 percent of travelers.

Many know the symptoms only as a minor headache. For others, though, a significant headache can be accompanied by loss of appetite, nausea and even vomiting. An inability to sleep can be an additional problem, Tuft said.

Fortunately, more severe forms of altitude illness are rare in Colorado. One such illness is high-altitude pulmonary edema. Signs are shortness of breath not caused by exertion, a cough and possibly gurgling when breathing. These symptoms are life threatening and require immediate medical attention.

Prevention and treatment

Prevention is sometimes as simple as an overnight stay at an intermediate altitude, such as Denver.

Several drugs have been used for prevention, including acetazolamide (Diamox), which is about 75 percent effective when started one day in advance and continued through the next two days, Tuft said. It has a respiratory stimulant that can prevent a decrease in respirations during sleep and is a diuretic, which can help combat water retention, particularly by the brain.

Oxygen might be the best preventative. Many of Alpine Mobile Physicians’ patients start supplemental oxygen the moment they arrive in their rooms and breathe it continuously for the first night, Tuft said.

Preventative drugs and overnight oxygen are likely overkill for most travelers, who often have mild symptoms, but prevention is key for those who have had altitude illness in the past. Those who have been previously afflicted nearly always get it again.

Travelers with more significant symptoms should seek treatment, which usually involves oxygen. Within the first few minutes of oxygen therapy, most patients feel dramatically better, but they must remain on oxygen overnight to solidify the cure, Tuft said.

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