Now that the Olympics have ended, many of us want to get back on the skis or give snowboarding a try. Going for a ski weekend in the Poconos is one thing, but that trip to Breckenridge is another.
Certainly the slopes are more challenging out west, but many forget the altitude. High altitude can be a real problem for us Philly folks living at sea level. The low oxygen levels that you breathe at high altitudes can cause health problems, and even the physically fit Olympian must take caution.
Acute mountain sickness (AMS) is an illness that is caused by low air pressure and low oxygen levels at high altitudes (above 8000 feet). In most cases the symptoms are mild and feel like a hangover. Headache, nausea and fatigue are most common, but additional symptoms include dizziness, loss of appetite, rapid heart rate and shortness of breath. Mild AMS is not life-threatening, but can be a warning sign of a more serious problem to come. AMS can lead to lung or brain swelling that quickly can become fatal. The good news is most people only suffer the mild symptoms of AMS.
The treatment for AMS is easy if caught early. The first thing to do is to descend to a lower altitude as quickly and safely as possible. Breathing oxygen is helpful if available, and medical personnel might add medications like Diamox and decadron. Most cases are mild and will resolve without incident.
Prevention is the key to avoiding problems. If you are planning a trip to high altitude, try to plan a one-day stay in a place with elevation around 5000 feet and ascend the next day. If this isn’t possible, go light the first day. Don’t make the first day a big ski day. Get used to the area, take in some sights and wait to acclimate a bit before you hit the slopes. If this still isn’t possible, speak with your doctor about medications like acetazolamide (Diamox). This can be taken 24 hours before you leave and for the first 2-3 days of your trip. This can help you adjust quicker and reduce the symptoms.
So if you’re heading out to ski some packed powder at high altitude, be smart, go slow, drink plenty of fluids, avoid alcohol and have fun. If you would like more detailed information, the Wilderness Medicine Society can help.
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