Ski country is beautiful, but beware altitude sickness

Beautiful but the air is thin in ski country
Beautiful but the air is thin in ski country

It is no fun getting sick on vacation and altitude sickness is the worst.  But when you are above 9,986 feet as we are in Breckenridge, CO, it isn’t that uncommon, the staff at the St. Anthony Breckenridge Community Clinic Emergency Center tells us.

This is the second clinic visit in three days for my son—the first was at Vail Valley Medical Center where he was diagnosed with a virus that was exacerbated by the altitude.

An IV to replenish his fluids and some anti nausea medicine and he’d be good to go by the next morning, the staff thought.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.  We are spending half our trip at Breckenridge (www.gobreck.com) and it is about 1,500 feet higher than Vail—not that much but possibly, just enough to make him sick from the altitude.  We are the busiest in Breckenridge with altitude sickness,” said the Alpin Aire representative who brought the Oxygen unit to our condo.

In all our years of family ski trips, this is our first experience with it. But it is so common that the Breckenridge clinic has a print-out on the impact of breathing thinner air.  At elevations greater than 8,000 feet, your body responds by breathing faster, resulting in shortness of breath.  People get headaches, nausea, trouble sleeping and feel really tired.

Usually these symptoms go away in a day or two, but not always.   My son required oxygen (luckily they delivered a portable unit right to our condo at Blue Sky Breckenridge).

Another plus for condos vs. hotels: when someone is ill, it is certainly nice to have room to spread out and a kitchen to heat up soup.

The doctors say the effects of high altitude can be decreased by:

–Increasing fluid intake—two to three times more than usual. Water and juices are best.  Adequate hydration is key in preventing altitude sickness.

–Avoid alcohol and minimize caffeine on your first few days.  Remember, you may be much more sensitive to alcohol at this altitude.

–Decrease salt because salt causes your body to retain fluid which increases the severity of altitude sickness.

–Eat frequent small meals high in carbohydrates but low in fat and protein.

–Get plenty of rest.

High Altitude Pulmonary Edema can be very serious.  You would have a wet cough and increasing shortness of breath and the feeling of fluid building up in your lungs.  Another serious condition is High Altitude Cerebral Edema which makes someone confused, disoriented and have difficulty walking.  If you or someone you are with has any of these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.  Both can be life threatening.

What can you do? Medications like Diamox and oxygen helped my son feel better (don’t take it if you are allergic to sulfa drugs).

Doctors also say spending a night someplace like Denver — lower altitude but still a lot higher than sea level — can also help.

Of course we hadn’t done that.  My son was going to go home early, thinking he’d feel better at sea level but then was too sick to leave. (Thanks Delta, for not charging to switch his flight and switch it again.)

I just wish I’d gotten travel insurance to cover all of the out of pocket expenses….that his insurance won’t cover.

Next time.

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