(970) 389-7999

High Altitude Illness

ACUTE MOUNTAIN SICKNESS (AMS)

  • AMS can afflict any visitor sleeping higher than 6000 feet
  • Approximately 25% of visitors sleeping at 8000 ft or higher will develop AMS
  • Cause is thought to be due to low oxygen (hypoxia) and high altitude (lower barometric pressure) 
  • Symptoms include: headache, nausea/vomiting, dizziness/lightheadedness, fatigue or weakness
  • Symptoms show within 24 hours
  • Although rare in Colorado, if left untreated, AMS can progress to a serious, life-threatening form called HACE (high altitude cerebral edema). Symptoms include: severe headache, confusion, lethargy, lack of coordination, seizures, coma, and eventually death if untreated. The person may appear confused, disoriented, unable to walk a straight line, and slurring speech. THIS IS A 911 EMERGENCY!

HIGH ALTITUDE PULMONARY EDEMA (HAPE)

  • HAPE is a serious form of altitude illness that causes fluid to fill the lungs
  • Symptoms start within 2-4 days at altitude
  • Symptoms include shortness of breath with activity and then at rest, persistent cough (sometimes with blood-pink foamy sputum), chest tightness and severe weakness
  • Quick treatment is essential as HAPE is a life-threating condition
  • If caught and treated early, HAPE can be successfully treated at your place of lodging with oxygen and medication
  • Risk factors include: male gender, coming to altitude with a respiratory illness, history of heart or lung problems including pulmonary hypertension

PREVENTING ALTITUDE ILLNESS

  • Slow ascent to altitude is key such as an over-night stay in Denver
  • Avoid alcohol or medications such as narcotics or benzodiazepine sleep aids (Ambien, Lunesta, Benadryl and melatonin are safe to use)
  • Do not overexert yourself the first 48 hours at altitude
  • Hydrate just enough to keep your urine clear or pale yellow – overhydrating will not cure AMS
  • Eat a diet that higher in carbohydrates and lower in protein and fats
  • Medications such as Acetazolamide (Diamox®), if started 24 hours prior to coming to altitude can prevent AMS

RISK FACTORS FOR AMS

  • history of previous AMS
  • Residence at an altitude below 3000 ft
  • Travel from low altitude to high altitude within 24 hours
  • Obesity
  • Current respiratory infection
  • Over-exertion the first day or two at altitude
  • Alcohol the first night at altitude

TREATMENT FOR AMS and HAPE

  • Descent to lower altitude (most effective, but not always necessary)
  • Oxygen – provided by a medical provider or with a prescription ONLY after a diagnosis is made by a licensed medical provider
  • Dexamethasone – a medication used in the treatment of AMS administered by a medical provider
  • Ibuprofen or Tylenol for headache
  • Rest

COMMON MYTHS ABOUT AMS

  • All oxygen administration is the same
    • Oxygen bars are a novelty in Colorado and are not intended to treat any medical condition
    • Rental of an oxygen concentrator from a non-medical company, not requiring a prescription or not able to provide a medical assessment from a licensed medical provider is a dangerous practice. There is no regulation for what they are providing you. Rental of these machines can lead to worsening AMS or other life-threatening conditions that can mimic AMS
    • Pulse Oximeters and Oxygen Concentrators: What to Know About At-Home Oxygen Therapy | FDA
  • Boost “oxygen in cans” can treat AMS
    • these are sold in many CO stores and are a novelty. They will not help AMS.
  • IV hydration or over hydration will cure AMS
    • If your urine is clear to pale yellow, you are well hydrated
    • Drinking too much water or getting IV hydration when you are already well hydrated can lead to dangerous electrolyte imbalances and or worsening of some chronic medical conditions
  • Being athletic or in “great shape” protects you from developing AMS
    • Being athletic can actually be a risk factor for HAPE and does not protect you from AMS
  • Older people are more at risk for AMS
    • Actually, healthy people over 50 are at lower risk for AMS
    • Anyone, from babies to the elderly can develop AMS

We are happy to answer your questions and can provide pre-travel counseling and medication prescriptions. Please call 970-389-7999 for more information

Our practice will be closed from 9/19/2022 to 10/17/2022.

Information on altitude sickness can be found here on our website.

You can also leave us a message at: hamp@highaltitudemobilephysicians.com and we will get back to you as soon as possible.

For medical emergencies call 911 or visit St. Anthony Summit emergency room. For oxygen rentals while we are gone, please contact Summit Oxygen.

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