Public HealthWilderness Medicine

The Downer of High Altitude Sickness

2 Mins read
Andrew in Colorado, Summer 2011


Andrew in Colorado, Summer 2011


Greetings from Breckenridge, Colorado. At 10,000 feet, I am told it is the highest resort town in North America. The Rocky Mountain scenery is breathtaking. But there’s a problem for about one in four of us who visit here, especially people like me who live at sea level. We can get hit with high altitude sickness and a few days ago, I was one of the unlucky ones.

What happens is your body isn’t used to the thin air and your blood has difficulty getting enough oxygen to your body. It usually happens at altitudes over 8,500 feet. You get an ongoing headache, you feel tired, you have insomnia (I was sleepless for two nights!), you could have nausea and certainly fatigue. Drinking lots of water and passing up alcohol can help, but even then some people have problems.

When I finally saw a family doctor – Doctor P.J. – he told me it’s genetic. Some people have trouble “acclimatizing” and others don’t, but there’s no easy way to know who will be affected before you make the climb. Now that I know I have difficulty I will take a prescription medicine (Diamox) ahead of coming up here again.

Doctor P.J. says even some Olympic athletes come here and get laid low – sometimes so low that they may need to breathe oxygen for anywhere between a few hours and a few days. I had a little experience with that too. Breckenridge actually has an “Oxygen Bar” right on Main Street. I spent 45 minutes on a leather couch with a canula in my nostrils breathing scented oxygen. I chose the “energy” scent. It was a funny experience and it helped for a bit.

Fortunately, your body usually acclimatizes within a few days. For me it was about two and a half. One good thing was the weather was not so hot while I was “down.” It even snowed one night here in June!


Now the sun is shining, the snow capped mountains are glorious, the sky is deep blue and the clouds look like little balls of cotton. I am feeling adventurous. This afternoon I am ascending to 12,000 feet for a quick bike ride down a 15 mile trail. I am willing to risk it for the exhilaration of being on top of the world. But I also have advice for you; call your doctor before you go and take the pills!

Wishing you and your family the best of health and an enjoyable summer!


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