How to Recognize, Treat, & Prevent Altitude Sickness

When you’re skiing at resorts 8,000 feet above sea level it’s important to know how to recognize, treat, and prevent altitude sickness. This is the altitude where you or your family members can start to experience symptoms—especially if you live below 3,000 feet above sea level. Our four world-class ski resorts and their annual average of 500 inches of The Greatest Snow on Earth® are all above 8,000 feet. Up there, oxygen levels are lower than normal and the body needs time to adjust. Headaches and symptoms that feel like a bad hangover can set in quickly. Don’t worry though, most people adjust easily, and there are simple ways to avoid and relieve altitude sickness.

What is Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness is more than just losing your breath walking up the stairs at Snowbird, but you can blame both on the thin air. Altitude sickness or acute mountain sickness (AMS) is a condition encountered at altitudes of 6,000 feet above sea level and higher. According to the Institute for Altitude Medicine, between 15 and 40% of visitors in Colorado sleeping above 8,000 feet get altitude sickness. Utah resorts all have a base of 8,000 feet, so if you’re staying at one, your chances fall in the same range.

It’s caused by low oxygen levels and your body’s ability, or lack thereof, to adjust to them. If you live below 3,000 feet and drive straight to 8,000 feet without taking any time for your body to acclimate, you’re at risk. But, if you don’t push yourself too hard physically or drink alcohol the first night you arrive, you can usually avoid unnecessary suffering. While the exact cause of the condition isn’t clear, it is directly linked to the lower oxygen levels at these altitudes and causes a number of unpleasant symptoms.

The Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

Symptoms set in fast—you’ll experience them within the first few hours to 72 hours. It typically starts with a headache, and the rest of the symptoms feel like a bad hangover. Fatigue, weakness, dizziness, vomiting, and loss of appetite are a few common ones. That’s why it’s a good idea to take it easy with the alcohol your first night at the resort. A hangover at 8,000 feet piled onto altitude sickness is something no one should endure. If you already have a handful of symptoms, relax—you can treat altitude sickness.

How to Treat Altitude Sickness

First, know that symptoms usually clear within six to 48 hours on their own. Rest and take Ibuprofen for the headaches. Drink more water and eat foods high in potassium, like bananas. That’ll take care of most cases. If the symptoms are severe, descending to a lower altitude will help. Once you drop 1,000 feet you’ll start to feel better. Spending a day exploring Salt Lake is a great cure.

You can also use portable oxygen canisters to help speed your recovery. In all but rare cases, taking the steps above will fix you up. If nothing seems to be working after a day, the symptoms are getting markedly worse, or you encounter severe symptoms like slurred speech or impaired motor skills, descend and head to a doctor.

Skier Descending With Rope

Should I Go to a Doctor?

When symptoms aren’t improving, a doctor can prescribe Diamox® to help you feel better. This medication heightens your ability to breath so your blood can absorb more oxygen. It should do the trick if nothing else has.

In very rare cases, you could be suffering from high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) or high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). Both can start out as altitude sickness or occur alongside it, and, without immediate attention, are deadly conditions. They are marked by noticeable symptoms. People with HACE will appear confused, have trouble speaking, suffer from extreme lethargy, and have trouble walking. People with HAPE will suffer increased breathlessness with exertion and eventually, breathlessness at rest. Weakness and a cough will also accompany HAPE.

Both require immediate descent and oxygen or the victim can die within 24 hours or less. HAPE is more rapid. These typically only occur at altitudes over 13,000 feet, and in very low numbers, so don’t be too scared, but be aware.

How to Prevent Altitude Sickness

You can take steps to prevent altitude sickness from ruining your vacation. The most effective prevention technique is taking time to acclimate and gain elevation gradually. Staying in the city for a night before heading to your room at the resort is a great way to do this. Also, take it easy on your first day here—over-exerting yourself physically is one way to get AMS.

Start drinking lots of water before you arrive and stay hydrated throughout your trip because it helps your body acclimate to the altitude faster. Don’t drink alcohol the first night you’re here or take medications that contain Benzodiazepine if you can help it. Both suppress breathing rates, and this causes lower levels of oxygen in the blood. Taking 100 mg of Ginkgo biloba twice a day, starting five days before your trip has been shown to prevent and reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness.

If you’re prone to AMS, lodging in the city instead of at the resort will help you manage it. Descending to a lower altitude at the end of every day will allow your body to acclimate. You can also see a doctor and start taking Diamox® 24 hours prior to arrival to avoid unnecessary suffering.

Skier on Ledge Downtown

Words: Cole Lehman
Photos (in order of appearance): Past Ski City Shootout winners Mike Schirf, Lee Cohen, and Patrick Orton