Each week, OMRF Vice President of Research Dr. Rod McEver opens “Adam’s Journal” to answer a medical question from Adam Cohen, OMRF’s senior vice president & general counsel.
Here’s a question from a coworker:
I recently visited Breckenridge, Colorado, which sits 9,600 ft. above sea level. The elevation impacted everyone in our party to varying degrees, but a few experienced severe altitude sickness with vomiting, migraines and near-fainting. Can it be prevented, and is it anything more than a nuisance?
Dr. McEver Prescribes
Most people who experience altitude illness have what is known as acute mountain sickness, the most common form of the condition. Although rare, AMS can be deadly. Fortunately, you can take measures to blunt the effects of high elevation.
Altitude sickness occurs as the body adjusts to the lack of oxygen in the lower air pressure at high elevation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it occurs in more than 25% of people who visit heights of more than 8,000 feet, although it can also occur at lower altitudes.
AMS usually starts within 6-12 hours of arriving at elevation and often worsens at night. Symptoms resemble a bad hangover: headache, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, dizziness and restless sleep.
The most effective way to prevent altitude sickness is to ascend slowly and to stop at a lower altitude for 24 hours. Stay well hydrated, avoid excessive alcohol consumption, and if your agenda includes strenuous physical activity, opt for low-intensity exercise in the first two days to avoid overexertion early on.
In rare cases, AMS can progress to life-threatening swelling of the brain or lungs. Seek emergency medical attention with symptoms like confusion, shortness of breath when resting, or the inability to walk.
If those in your group who experienced severe symptoms plan to return to the mountains, they should consult their physicians. Research shows certain prescription medications are effective at preventing AMS symptoms. Additionally, in a small, randomized trial, researchers found that taking 600 mg of ibuprofen six hours before ascending to high altitude resulted in a 26% decrease in AMS compared to the placebo group.
Do you have a health query for Dr. McEver? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and your question may be answered in a future column!