Anybody who has snowmobiled in the West has most likely
heard of altitude sickness. Those who live at lower elevations and don’t
normally ride in the West but maybe only visit once or twice a winter are
especially susceptible to the effects of altitude sickness.
Thanks to the Grand Lake (CO) Fire Department, here is a
list of things to watch out for and how to treat altitude sickness—or Acute
Mountain Sickness as the fire department labels it.
One of the first points the fire department makes is to
drink lots of water, go easy on the alcohol, get plenty of rest and pace
Acute mountain sickness is an illness that can affect
snowmobilers, mountain climbers, hikers, skiers or travelers who climb too
fast. It usually occurs when people rapidly reach a high altitude (typically
above 8,000 feet). Grand
Lake is at 8,300 and goes
up from there.
Causes, incidence and
Acute mountain sickness occurs from the combination of
reduced air pressure and a lower concentration of oxygen at high altitude.
Symptoms can range from mild to life threatening and can affect the nervous
system, lungs, muscles and heart.
In most cases the symptoms are mild. In severe cases, fluid
collects in the lungs (pulmonary edema) causing extreme shortness of breath,
which further reduces how much oxygen a person gets. Brain swelling may also
occur (cerebral edema). This can cause confusion, coma and, if untreated,
The chance of getting acute mountain sickness increases the
faster a person climbs into a high altitude. The severity of the symptoms also
depends on this factor, as well as how much the person pushed (exerted) him or
herself. Persons who normally live at or near sea level are more prone to acute
Approximately 20 percent of people will develop mild
symptoms at altitudes between 6,300 to 9,700 feet, but pulmonary and cerebral
edema are extremely rare at these heights. However, above 14,000 feet, a
majority of people will experience at least mild symptoms. Some people who stay
at this height can develop pulmonary or cerebral edema.
Symptoms generally associated with mild to moderate altitude
illness include: headache, difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, nausea or
vomiting, fatigue, dizziness or light-headedness, rapid pulse (heart rate)
and/or shortness of breath with exertion.
Symptoms generally associated with more severe altitude
illness include: cough, shortness of breath at rest, chest tightness or
congestion, bluish discoloration of the skin, coughing up blood, inability to
walk in a straight line, or to walk at all, decreased consciousness or
withdrawl from social interaction, confusion and/or gray or pale complexion
The main form of treatment for all forms of mountain
sickness is to climb down (descend) to lower altitude as rapidly and safely as
possible. Supplemental oxygen should also be given, if available.
People with severe mountain sickness may be admitted to a
Acetazolamide (Diamox) is a drug used to stimulate breathing
and reduce mild symptoms of mountain sickness. This drug can cause increased
urination. Make sure you drink plenty of fluids. Do not drink alcohol while
taking this drug.
Education of mountain travelers before ascent is the key to
prevention. Basic principles include: gradual ascent, stopping for a day or two
of rest for each 2,000 feet (600 meters) above 8,000 feet (2,400 meters);
sleeping at a lower altitude when possible and learning how to recognize early
symptoms so you can return to lower altitude before worsening symptoms occur.
Acetazolamide (Diamox) helps to speed acclimatization and
reduce minor symptoms. Therapy should start one day before the ascent and
continue one to two days into the excursion. This measure is recommended for
those making a rapid ascent to high altitudes.
Those susceptible to anemia (particularly women) should
consult a doctor regarding an iron supplement to correct the condition before
traveling in high altitudes. Anemic persons have a reduced red blood cell
count, and therefore, a lower amount of oxygen carried in the blood.
Drink sufficient fluids, avoid alcohol and eat regularly.
Foods should be relatively high in carbohydrates.
People with underlying cardiac or pulmonary (lung) diseases
should avoid high altitudes.