Your Health

Special Health Topics

Effects of High Altitude

Tips For Visitors

Visitors to the Roaring Fork Valley will be exploring beautiful mountain country that ranges in altitude from 6,000 above sea level on the valley floor to more than 14,000 feet at the summits of high peaks. Some visitors who live at much lower elevations may experience a period of physical adjustment to the higher elevation. Recreational activities such as hunting, fishing, skiing, rafting and hiking increase the oxygen demand on your body. This demand is intensified at a higher elevation. By knowing a few facts about how your body responds to higher altitude, you can more fully enjoy your visit.

Effects of high altitude

High altitude can be anything above 5,280 feet. Effects vary among individuals and more commonly occur at elevations greater than 8,000 feet. At this elevation, oxygen is 40-45% less dense than at sea level and has 50-80% less humidity.

Acute mountain sickness

This is the most common high altitude illness. Symptoms may begin on arrival but the onset may also be delayed. Symptoms include headache, nausea, loss of appetite, insomnia, strange dreams, lethargy and sometimes flushed feelings. Children may have the same symptoms and may have vomiting. The illness usually lasts one or two days.

Treatment includes resting frequently during the first few days at high altitude, doing recreational activities at a lower altitude the first day, eating lightly, drinking more liquids and decreasing smoking. Aspirin or tylenol or mild sleeping medication may help, but barbiturates should be avoided.

The best treatment is prevention

Take several days to arrive at the higher altitude and increase activity slowly. Acute mountain sickness may progress to the more serious high altitude pulmonary edema. If you develop symptoms such as difficulty breathing, continued headache with mental disturbance, coughing or staggering gait, you should see a physician immediately.
This can be a medical emergency!

Effects on medical problems

People with chronic lung or heart disease may be affected adversely by the elevation. The decrease in oxygen alters body functions, making it harder to breathe and forcing the heart to work more. Respiratory rate and heart rate are increased. Avoid overexertion by adjusting your pace. It is always advisable to consult your family doctor before coming on your trip. If you find yourself having continued problems, you should seek medical advice immediately.


There is less atmosphere to block out the sun's burning ultraviolet rays, so sunburn occurs more readily. The effect is worsened by the sun reflecting off the snow and back onto the body. Don't underestimate the sun. Be careful to use the appropriate sun block. Spend less time in the sun than you would at home.


Face, hands and feet may swell with a weight gain of 4-12 pounds, mostly occurring in women. The swelling is symptomless and resolves spontaneously but may persist for several days after your return to a lower altitude. The cause of swelling is unknown but it does respond to diuretics or a low salt diet.


Dehydration may be caused by the dry mountain air and an increased respiratory rate due to the lower oxygen content.This results in increased loss of body moisture, which can be made greater with alcohol consumption. It is advisable to drink 6-8 glasses of water a day.


The low humidity dries the membranes of the nose, making them brittle and frequently causing nosebleeds. Dehydration and colds may cause them as well. Avoid colds, stay hydrated and use a humidifier. If a nosebleed does occur, the most effective way to stop it is to pinch the nose together for 5 minutes.

Effects on medication

Barbiturate and alcohol should be used with caution. Their effects are greater at higher altitudes. Oral anticoagulants (blood thinners) also may have increased effect. Anyone taking this medication should have their prothrombin times checked frequently. Lasix or other strong diuretics may cause your blood pressure to fall when standing up. This may result in fainting or dizziness.

Search Our Site:
Straight from the doctor's mouth
If you'd like to keep up with the latest medical developments and discover how they can help you live a more healthy life, drop in on our Physician Speaker Program. Our medical professionals present the latest medical knowledge in easy-to-understand terms, and answer your questions about the health issues that matter to you.
Contact Us