With winter upon us, millions of sports enthusiasts across the country will be heading to recreation areas above 7,800 feet in the Western United States to partake in skiing, snowboarding and other cold weather related sports before season’s end. Those living in lower altitude areas are at an increased risk for altitude sickness which can cause “headache, decreased appetite, nausea, dizziness, sleep disturbance, and fatigue” according to Melissa Tabor, DO
Assistant professor of sports medicine and an assistant professor of osteopathic principles and practice for Nova Southeastern University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Dr. Tabor, DO was kind enough to join me for an interview recently to discuss altitude sickness, common symptoms, prevention tips, risk factors and treatment options.
Candace Rose: What is altitude sickness?
Melissa Tabor, DO: “Barometric pressure falls as a person ascends. The percentage of oxygen in the air remains the same, but since the outside air pressure is lower, the pressure within the airway and lung blood vessels decrease resulting in constriction of the vessels and less oxygen being transported in our blood. The body senses the decreased oxygen and responds with dilating the blood vessels in the brain. The dilated vessels increase the amount of blood in the brain, which can lead to any of the following symptoms: headache, decreased appetite, nausea, dizziness, sleep disturbance, and fatigue. Headache is the most common and typically the 1st sign.”
Candace Rose: Is there anything we can do to prevent altitude sickness?
Melissa Tabor, DO: “Ascend at a rate no faster than the rate of acclimatizing. Listen to your body. If you don’t feel well, don’t ascend.
Based on Wilderness medical society guidelines, do not ascend faster than 500meters/day and take a rest day (remain at current elevation overnight) every 3-4days
If you live at sea level and travel to a location of elevation, you should stay at 1500-2200meters for approximately 2 days before ascending higher to decrease the likelihood of developing altitude sickness
Previous history of altitude sickness or need to ascend faster than guidelines: see a physician for preventative medication. Most common medication prescribed is acetazolamide (this can be given to children too). There are some studies on herbals…like ginko biloba, but the results are mixed.”
Candace Rose: Why are those under 50 more likely to develop it (esp. women and younger males)?
Melissa Tabor, DO: “Acclimatization varies with each person, which means every individual will respond differently to the lower amount of oxygen in the blood and may acclimatize at different rates.
Younger males develop symptoms due to more “high risk” behavior.
Women: statistics in the literature report more women versus men suffer altitude sickness.”
Candace Rose: What should we do if we think we have altitude sickness
Melissa Tabor, DO: “Any headache while ascending elevation is considered altitude sickness and the person should remain at the current elevation or descend immediately. If the person decides to remain at current elevation, and symptoms progress or do not resolve, they should descend. Descent is the main treatment and will prevent progression to more serious/life threatening diseases of high altitude cerebral edema and high altitude pulmonary edema.
Symptoms progress or do not resolve with descent, seek medical care immediately. You should also seek medical care if any of the following symptoms are present: confusion, shortness of breath, coughing blood, loss of balance or difficulty walking.”
Candace Rose: Do you have any additional tips or information to share
Melissa Tabor, DO: “Check the city or mountain website prior to traveling for tips and safety information. For example: http://www.denver.org/about-denver/high-altitude-tips/.”