To Your Health: Altitude Sickness

[click “Play” to listen to Sasha Cucciniello’s conversation with Dr. Peter Hackett]


(ed. note: Dr. Hackett’s discussion about altitude sickness is part of an ongoing series, “To Your Health” brought to you by the Telluride Medical Center. See this link for an introduction to the series.)

by Dr. Peter Hackett

PH Durnan The symptoms of altitude sickness are much like those of a hangover: headache predominates, and there may be queasiness, fatigue, irritability, dizziness, and trouble sleeping. These symptoms typically come on within 24 hours of arrival to over 8000 ft from low altitude (less than 3000 ft). They usually resolve in 24 hours without treatment, and sooner with ibuprofen or oxygen or descent to a lower altitude.

Ginkgo successfully prevented mountain sickness in some studies, but not in others. It seems that the exact ingredients vary in different preparations, so effectiveness varies. It is safe and non-prescription, and the dose is 100 mg twice a day starting a few days before travel to altitude.

Alcohol used in the first 24 hours at altitude will depress breathing and therefore may contribute to mountain sickness. After a day or two of acclimatization to the altitude, alcohol in moderation is fine.

Caffeine is not a problem at high altitude, and in fact, has advantages of stimulating breathing and the kidneys and reducing headaches. But stopping caffeine when going to high altitude can cause severe headaches and even contribute to mountain sickness. It is best to maintain caffeine consumption at altitude just as at home.

Once at altitude, it is important to allow the body stress-free time to adjust in the first two days. This means taking it easy the first day or two, eating lightly, avoiding much alcohol, drinking a bit of extra water and getting sleep. The corollary is avoiding overexertion, dehydration, alcohol and inadequate sleep.

There is no harmful effect from leaving high altitude, except mild blues from having to go back to work.

Peter Hackett’s passion for wilderness and mountain medicine started at age 25, when he became a helicopter rescue doctor in Yosemite National Park. Subsequently, he lived in Nepal for six years and was instrumental in developing the Himalayan Rescue Association. After a research fellowship with Dr Jack Reeves, he directed the Denali Medical Research Project in Alaska. He is a founding member of the WMS, past president of the ISMM, co-chair of the International Hypoxia Symposia, and is currently director of the Institute for Altitude Medicine in Telluride Colorado, and faculty at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. He lectures world-wide, has published extensively, and continues to mountain climb and ski.

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