Altitude sickness in Eagle County
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado After months of planning, the day of my sisters visit to the High Country arrived. She got here at dinnertime, tired but in good spirits. By bedtime, she had the beginning of a headache, which she attributed to her arduous, cross-country trek from Florida. The next morning, however, found her miserable: Nauseated, with a splitting headache and the weariness of a fitful nights sleep. For the next three days, she took up residence on my couch, so seldom vertical that my cats started to believe she was part of the furniture.Until I witnessed her near-debilitating fatigue, I had never considered my 27-year-old, gym-going sister would have any problem at our lofty altitude proof that living nearly two miles above sea level doesnt make you an expert on altitude sickness. Though we mountain-dwellers have adapted to the lower amount of oxygen in our rarified air, the same isnt true of our visitors, many of whom live at or near sea level.The University of Colorados Altitude Research Center & Foundation estimates that 25 percent of the states visitors experience acute mountain sickness. As in the case of my sister who fortunately returned to full health after a few days its victims are both young and old, in great and not-so-great shape.As ski season draws nearer and our friends and family grow ever more enthusiastic about visiting us, understanding how to prevent and treat altitude sickness can make a Vail Valley vacation more enjoyable for both tourist and host.
For High Country doctors and pharmacists, its a fairly common tale: A patient has been traveling to the same mountain town for years with no altitude trouble, then suddenly, during one visit, develops the trademark headache, nausea and insomnia. Though a previous history of altitude sickness makes people 80 percent more susceptible to its recurrence, says Dr. David Denton Davis, founder of Vails ResortMed Mobile Physicians, no history of it doesnt guarantee someone wont fall victim in the future.Therefore, both first-time and frequent visitors can benefit from preventative steps to avoid the illness altogether.Diamox is one prescription medication that travelers can take for several days before they arrive to prevent the onset of altitude sickness, says Dr. Courtney Schaefer, pharmacy manager at the Vail City Market. Diamox is a diuretic that increases a patients breathing rate, causing them to take in more oxygen; though its side effects include numbness, tingling and difficulty tasting, Schaefer says these are relatively rare.Both Davis and Dr. Nick Bitz, a natural doctor at Riverwalk Natural Health in Edwards, prefer the herbal supplement ginkgo biloba to achieve the same preventative effect. Taken several days before arriving at high altitude, ginkgo helps to increase circulation, thereby increasing the amount of oxygen reaching the cells, Bitz says. He also recommends high doses of ginger for the same purpose.
The best way to prevent and treat altitude sickness, Davis argues, is to get to the root of the problem.The single best treatment of altitude sickness is not drugs, its oxygen, he says. You have to respect the fact that you are getting less oxygen per breath.Since our breathing tends to become shallower and less frequent while we are sleeping, spending the night at high altitude means even less oxygen enters our bodies, Davis says. Thats why he advises patients to get a prescription for oxygen from their doctors before coming to the High Country, then hook up to the oxygen while sleeping for the first night or two of their stay.For altitude sufferers wanting to feel better fast, a one-hour trip into a hyperbaric chamber is a great quick-fix, Davis says. The chamber, which simulates the higher atmospheric pressure found at sea level, reboots a persons system to rid them of altitude sickness, Davis says. After an hour in the hyperbaric chamber, 96 percent of patients wont have recurrent symptoms, he says.You break the cycle, Davis says.But patients can expect to pay for such near-instant relief: An hour in a hyperbaric chamber costs from $200 to as much as $675, if ResortMed comes to a hotel or home to treat a patient on-site.
Even without oxygen or hyperbaric treatments, most mountain sickness patients feel better in three days, Schaefer says.Dr. Kay Hensley, pharmacy manager at the Avon City Market, offers individual advice to make those few days more bearable.Not everyone suffers in the same way, she says.Most often, Hensley recommends over-the-counter medications to treat the headache, nausea and insomnia associated with altitude sickness though if difficulty breathing, racing pulse or other signs of severe illness accompany the other symptoms, she sends the patient to a doctor. Hensley and Schaefer also advise patients to drink plenty of fluids and avoid caffeine and alcohol, since the valleys dry climate can quickly dehydrate visitors compounding the headache brought on by lower oxygen levels here.Bitz offers some advice residents and visitors alike can benefit from: Breathe better. One method is 3-4-7 breathing, where people inhale for three counts, hold it for four counts and exhale for seven counts. Simple belly breathing, or inhaling deep into the torso, can also help maximize the amount of oxygen entering our bodies, even in the thin mountain air, Bitz says. (Breathing) is something people do all day, every day, he says. Most people do it very poorly.E-mail comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.