Altitude Sickness - When Your Body Rebels at over 9,000 Feet

What You Need to Know About Altitude Sickness

Rocky Mountains
The Beautiful (and very high) Rocky Mountains. Copyright: Elizabeth R. Rose

Altitude Sickness affects almost one out of three people who travel to high altitude destinations. What’s high altitude? Well for some, it might be 5,000 feet while for others it might not be an issue until they hit 10,000 feet. Altitude sickness is unpredictable. It can affect the young fit hiker as well as the elderly traveler. It can affect you one one trip but not the next.

What is Altitude Sickness?

Well, you’ll know it when you get it!

According to WebMD, Altitude sickness occurs when you cannot get enough oxygen from the air at high altitudes. This causes symptoms such as a headache and not feeling like eating. It happens most often when people who are not used to high altitudes go quickly from lower altitudes to 8000ft or higher. For example, you may get a headache when you drive over a high mountain pass, hike to a high altitude, or arrive at a mountain resort. More...

What are the Symptoms?

  • Headache
  • Queasiness and lack of appetite
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Trouble sleeping – waking frequently

You may have altitude sickness yet not have all the symptoms listed above. I recently had the joy of traveling in the Rocky Mountain National Park (10,000 - 11,800 ft.) and Staying at Grand Lake, Colorado (9,000 ft.).

When I found myself short of breath while walking an easy trail at 10,000 feet I realized that, having previously been at 11,800 feet that day, I was suffering from altitude sickness.

When I got back to my cabin at 9,000 feet I still was short of breath, tired easily and didn’t want to eat a large meal. I had it and it was the first time I had experienced the illness.

Another travel writer, Pauline Dolinski, commented on her symptoms: “I get lightheaded, breathless, and quite nauseous, especially if I climb or walk too much.

Of course, I'm not a hiker, so my body is shocked anyway by such exercise. I find that I just have to sit down and have some cool water. It takes me several days to get adjusted. I haven't figured the precise heights, but Glacier, Banff, Denver, Mexico City, have all caused a problem. It doesn't stop me going, however!”

One walking friend of mine added: “Even going up Mt Lemmon (9,000 ft) can give me altitude sickness if I'm not careful.” Another of my walking friends refuses to hike in high altitudes. She won't even take the Grand Canyon rim trail. (7,000 ft). She just knows her body will rebel.

Preventing Typical Altitude Sickness

  • Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration
  • Ascend and descend gradually, maybe over a day or two
  • Spend a day, or the first night at an altitude slightly lower than where you plan to be active
  • Rod Brouhard, About First Aid writer, has suggestions for preventive medications that might help with altitude sickness.
  • Limit alcoholic beverages

Altitude Sickness for Travelers

These tips are meant to help the casual hiker, skier and traveler. It is not advice for those going to extreme high altitudes for mountaineering expeditions or flying.

What worked for me, as a casual traveler, was to acknowledge that I had Altitude Sickness, immediately increase my intake of fluids, rest and avoid strenuous activities.

Within a day I had acclimated and was able to resume normal activities. I did, however, avoid hiking up hills for the rest of my short trip. I let my body dictate my level of activity. Rest helped.

If you already have heart or lung problems, experience debilitating symptoms or become concerned about your body’s response to high altitudes, be sure and contact a medical professional. This information is meant as an informal guide to Altitude Sickness and not medical advice.