Ski trip coming up? Avoid Altitude Sickness with These Tips

January 3, 2024

Colorado’s picturesque mountains offer a winter wonderland for skiing enthusiasts, making it a prime destination for winter vacations. However, one common challenge that visitors often face is altitude sickness.

Dr. Marc Doucette, a mountain emergency medicine physician at St. Anthony Summit Hospital in Summit County, said the sudden increase in elevation can cause noticeable — and sometimes serious — health effects.

Understanding Altitude Sickness and Its Prevalence

Altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), can affect anyone, regardless of age, fitness level, or prior experience with high altitudes.

Symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • A sensation of heart racing

While it’s generally temporary and mild, in severe cases, it can lead to more serious conditions like high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE). HAPE occurs when fluid accumulates in the lungs, making breathing difficult.

HAPE usually strikes after a few days at altitude, with symptoms including shortness of breath, severe headache, dry cough, fast heartbeat, chest pain, fever and eventually a cough that results in pink, frothy sputum.

“HAPE is serious,” Dr. Doucette said. “Anyone experiencing chest pain, shortness of breath, severe headache or persistent vomiting should seek immediate medical attention.”

Preventing Altitude Sickness

You and your family can employ several strategies to prevent or mitigate the effects of altitude sickness and make the most of your ski trip.

  • Gradual ascent - give your body time (a night or two) to acclimate to the high altitude.
  • Stay hydrated and limit alcohol and caffeine - Before your journey and during your stay at high altitudes, it’s vital to consume ample water, typically around 12 to 16 glasses daily.
  • Eat properly and get your rest - Eating a well-balanced diet can help your body cope with altitude better. When you sleep at higher altitudes, your body naturally adjusts to the lower oxygen levels by increasing the production of red blood cells and improving your overall oxygen-carrying capacity.

What to Do if You Recognize Symptoms

Experiencing altitude sickness can be uncomfortable, and in severe cases, it can become a serious medical issue. If you or someone you’re with starts to show symptoms of altitude sickness, it’s crucial to act promptly. Here’s what you should do:

  • Stop ascending, rest and hydrate. If you start experiencing symptoms, it’s critical to stop ascending immediately.
  • Descend if symptoms worsen. If your symptoms continue or worsen, experts advise descending to a lower altitude.
  • Stay with others. If you’re traveling with a group, staying together is a good idea. Symptoms can worsen quickly and having others around can be helpful in an emergency.
  • Seek medical help if symptoms persist. If symptoms persist, become severe, or if you’re concerned about someone’s condition, seek medical attention immediately. CommonSpirit’s mountain clinics have physicians and nursing staff experienced in treating altitude sickness.

Colorado’s ski season is a magical time for families to come together and enjoy the stunning mountain landscapes. But remember that altitude sickness can affect anyone and is common in high-altitude destinations. By following the tips above and being prepared, you and your family can experience an incredible ski trip in the Rockies.

Content previously shared in The Denver Post