Any location above 5,280 feet in elevation is broadly interpreted as “high.” It is estimated that over half of Colorado is over 5,280 feet.

    High altitude affects everyone somewhat. The effects vary among individuals and cover a variety of symptoms. The two main differences between the high altitude environment and sea level are decreased oxygen density and decreased humidity, or moisture content, in the surrounding air.

    At an elevation of 8,000 to 10,000 feet, the oxygen is approximately 40%-45% less dense, and the humidity is 50%-80% lower than at sea level. A sudden change in environment can produce symptoms of nausea, insomnia, diarrhea, restlessness, shortness of breath, and air hunger. Vacationers may have palpitations or fast heart beat, headache, nasal congestion, coughing, easy fatigue, and intolerance to exertion. If the high altitude experience progresses, more shortness of breath and increased coughing and edema (fluid accumulation in the lungs) may occur requiring medical attention.

    The initial complaints should disappear as the body adjusts to the lowered oxygen content and dryness. This may take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. New arrivals to high altitude should keep physical exertion to a minimum the first day, eat lightly, and avoid alcohol for 2-3 days (alcohol aggravates the high altitude syndrome). Most of all, drink at least 2 liters of water daily. Over exertion before the body can adapt to the lower oxygen and dryness can result in more serious and persistent symptoms. People over 35 and planning strenuous exercise while in high altitude should check with their doctor first. A person with a history of heart, circulatory, or lung disease must check with a doctor before coming to high altitude. Pregnant women should consult a physician before exerting themselves at high altitude.

    When vacationing, people are tempted to do as much as possible. Vigorous activity the first day followed by a big meal with alcohol and more strenuous activity the next day, can lead to high altitude sickness. Visitors to high altitudes who get plenty of rest and do not drink alcohol the first few days are likely to avoid any complications caused by high altitude exposure.

From an article by Barry D. Mink, M.D., for the Pitkin County Friends of Heart

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