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Treating Altitude Sickness

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

With summer vacation in full swing, many families are traveling. Some families are heading to the mountains or maybe camping and hiking in a National Park. Others may be going to far away places for an adventure in South America or even Asia and encounter higher altitudes.

moutainsI seem to get several calls each year about “acute mountain sickness” which may occur when traveling to altitudes above 5,000 feet (1,500 meters),  but is typically associated when travelling to altitudes of 8,000 – 14,000 feet (2,440 – 4,270 meters).  To give you a frame of reference, Denver, Colorado is 5,280 feet above sea level, while Vail, CO is 8,200 feet.

Other destinations such as the Grand Canyon (6,760 feet), Mexico City (7,347 feet), and Cusco, Peru (10,659 feet. Mt. Whitney in California is the highest mountain in the contiguous U.S., 14,494 feet above sea level.  (Trust me, I had to get out my map to figure out where all of these places were!)

Fortunately, most people will not have serious problems when traveling to higher altitudes.  The human body acclimatizes to higher altitudes by allowing your body to function with less oxygen without having distressing or debilitating symptoms.  Despite that, the body is not functioning as well as it does at sea level, as the air is less dense at higher altitudes and consequently there is less oxygen available for breathing.

The first thing you may notice is a slight increase in respiratory rate, which will help to increase oxygen delivery to the lungs but at the same time results in the loss of extra CO2.  Some people may also notice an increase in heart rate. I think that most children without underlying medical problems (chronic pulmonary or cardiac problems), seem to actually acclimate better than adults.

But in some cases you may notice that your child has non-specific symptoms such as irritability (I must admit hard to tell if altitude, traveling or just having a bad day), decreased appetite, headaches, disrupted sleep (always seems to happen when travelling with children) and occasionally vomiting.

All of these symptoms usually resolve after several days and may be minimized by planning a gradual ascent to higher altitudes.  So, driving may be better than flying, but…..I can remember several days while driving to Colorado with cranky children and we were not even out of Texas! I also think one of the boys vomited due to the driving and not altitude. Oh well, fond memories nonetheless.

For some children and teens who have experienced repetitive episodes of altitude sickness I have used a prescription medication called Diamox to minimize symptoms.  I would not recommend this for young children.  You should speak with your doctor about the use of this medication, as it aids in acclimatization by increasing the excretion of bicarbonate in the kidney, which will stimulate the respiratory rate and improves oxygenation.  Some families who are frequently sick when skiing or hiking also have portable oxygen to use to help alleviate symptoms for the first several days they are at higher altitudes.

For most of us, just maintaining hydration and taking the first few days of exercise a little slower is enough for our bodies to acclimate and enjoy the trip!

That’s your daily dose.  We’ll chat again tomorrow.

Send your question to Dr. Sue right now!

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