8 tips to avoid altitude sickness

By Rachel Walker

As anyone who has ventured thousands of feet above sea level can attest, altitude sickness can be a real and uncomfortable (sometimes dangerous) condition.

It packs such a punch, in fact, that most people who vacation in the high country are assaulted with tips to avoid altitude sickness.

Trust me. Even though I live in Colorado year round and my body is relatively acclimated, I always experience a change when we go to the mountains.

I follow my own tips to ease my body through the physical shock of oxygen deprivation, aridity, and a powerful sun.

The higher you go, the thinner the air. Get too high too fast, and your body doesn’t get the oxygen it needs.

Most people can reach 8,000 feet without experience altitude sickness. But the ailment can strike as “low” as 5,000 feet above sea level.

Common altitude sickness symptoms can strike anyone—regardless of their fitness level. They include:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Fatigue/loss of energy
  • Insomnia

Without further ado, I present my perennial tips to avoid altitude sickness in the mountains:

1. Hydrate

This is the best way to help your body adjust to high altitude. Generally the low humidity at altitude keeps the air dry, so you should drink twice as much water as you would at home.

Also keep in mind that you want to add water to your body, not deplete it. At least initially, avoid caffeine and alcohol.

2. Replenish

Foods rich in potassium are great for acclimating. Some good staples to eat include broccoli, bananas, avocado, cantaloupe, celery, greens, bran, chocolate, granola, dates, dried fruit, potatoes and tomatoes.

Do your body a favor and decrease salt intake.

Additionally, complex carbohydrates are great for stabilizing your blood sugar and maintaining energy. Eat plenty of whole grains, pasta, fruits, and vegetables.

3. Easy does it

You’ve been planning an epic winter vacation for months. But this is the first time you’ve logged any time above 6,000 feet.

You will feel the effects of exercise more at altitude than at home. By all means, get after it. But dial back the effort if you’re short of breath, sore, or consistently fatigued.

4. Shade yourself

The big sky country of the mountains isn’t a figment of your imagination. There’s less water vapor in the air here, which makes the color of the sky bluer than the sky at home.

That’s pretty. It also means there’s 25 percent less protection from the sun. If you don’t lather up with sunscreen—a proper amount to apply is a shot glass worth each time—you burn. This is true regardless of your complexion.

5. Doctor’s orders

If you’re concerned about altitude sickness, visit your doctor before your trip.

She can go over common symptoms and may even recommend acetazolamide, also known as Diamox, the most common drug for altitude sickness prevention and treatment.

Non-prescriptive antidotes for altitude sickness symptoms include ibuprofen to relieve altitude-induced headaches, and ginger chews, capsules or tea to settle the stomach.

6. Acclimate

This isn’t just a technical term mountain climbers throw around to sound cool. Adjusting to higher altitude can take a few days.

If you have the time, consider spending a night or two at an intermediate altitude—say, spend a night or two in Denver before heading up to Vail.

If that’s not an option, plan calmer activities the first 24-48 hours of your trip.

7. Prepare

The days might be warm. But when that big ball of fire goes down in the sky, mountain nights are cold.

Prepare your body for this Jekyll/Hyde temperature swing by bringing extra layers out in the evenings.

8. Seek help

Whether your symptoms are consistently mildly uncomfortable or they’re acute, altitude sickness is real and can be debilitating.

If attempts to alleviate them don’t work, head to the nearest medical clinic. They are staffed by knowledgeable medical professionals who understand the impacts of altitude on the body and will help.

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