Vail health column: The great altitude debate: Hydration versus oxygen |

Vail health column: The great altitude debate: Hydration versus oxygen

Scott Brandt, M.D.
Health Insights

Visitors to the Vail Valley quite frequently confuse the symptoms of dehydration with those of high-altitude sickness, especially at 5,000 to 8,000 feet, where dehydration is responsible for far more illness than oxygen insufficiency.

Never the less, when the symptoms of headache, fatigue, nausea, lightheadedness and muscle soreness set in, vacationers inundated with commercials for oxygen often rush to grab a can of oxygen or visit the emergency room requesting oxygen.

The reality is that most often a suffering vacationer's oxygen level has not fallen below normal. Typically, the oxygen does little to improve symptoms because what the body really needs is hydration — and lots of it. Often, by the time symptoms have arrived, it's too late to start guzzling water, and the fastest remedy is a liter of intravenous hydration packed with essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients.

There are several factors that make visitors to moderately high altitudes very susceptible to dehydration. Above 6,000 feet, even at rest, you exhale and perspire twice as much as at sea level. This is amplified when enjoying vigorous activities such as skiing, hiking, biking, etc. Over the course of a day, this can amount to several liters of water loss. In addition, higher altitudes mean lower air pressure, which compounds the loss of moisture from evaporation from both the skin surface and the lungs. Add to that the extremely low humidity and it's the perfect setup for unexpected dehydration.

Altitude sickness can be extremely dangerous and, although far less prevalent than dehydration, needs to be considered when symptoms strike. This is especially important if shortness of breath, coughing of pink fluid or decreased oxygen saturations accompany the other symptoms. Studies have demonstrated that aggressive fluid intake decreases both the incidence and severity of altitude sickness. Hydrating at the start of, and consistently throughout, a mountain vacation can protect you from dehydration and altitude sickness.


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The advertising for canned oxygen can be very appealing, with claims of increased energy, stress relief, improved focus, easing of muscle soreness and quick recovery from jet lag and hangovers. It unfortunately sounds too good to be true, and from a medical standpoint, it undoubtedly is. Air contains 21 percent oxygen, and healthy people have evolved to saturate their blood cells at this concentration. Once our blood has enough oxygen, you can't load any more into the blood cells.

The reason altitude-related symptoms usually occur has nothing to do with hypoxia, and oxygen adds little to the situation except a placebo effect. Any potential boost a few minutes of a can of oxygen offers would be gone as soon as the can is empty. Although trendy, a can of oxygen is little more than hot air for healthy people who aren't climbing Mount Everest, where supplemental oxygen is necessary.

Dehydration, however, is the most common cause of the typical symptoms of headache, fatigue, nausea, muscle aches and hangovers, which are all too often wrongly attributed to decreased oxygen. Intravenous nutrient therapy can offer both preventative and maintenance protection in avoiding the symptoms of dehydration. Maintaining vigorous hydration at the beginning and throughout a visit to altitude can be the best security available against lost vacation time.

Enjoying a recreational vacation at 8,000 feet can require consuming 3 to 5 liters of fluid a day, a target that most visitors fail to achieve. One liter of IV fluid packed with essential vitamins, mineral and nutrients is the equivalent to drinking more than three liters of water. Once the symptoms of dehydration occur, IV nutrient therapy is the most powerful treatment option available in the fight against dehydration and feeling your best on vacation in the Vail Valley.

Dr. Scott Brandt, medical director of ThriveMD, practices leading-edge regenerative medicine. He offers IV nutrient treatments in office and at residences and hotel rooms, stem-cell treatments for orthopedic conditions, bioidentical hormone replacement therapy, medical diets and liposculpture. Contact ThriveMD at 970-766-8245 or visit