Sunday, July 27, 2008

Rocky Mountain High

If you are of a certain age, you will remember most vividly this anthem John Denver wrote. Debate went on for a very long time about just what kind of “high” he was singing about. Now, the song simply evokes pleasant memories for many, and some sorrow that John Denver died so young.

We write about a different rocky mountain “high” this week. Altitude sickness. If you already live in Colorado, as we do, chances are you are well accustomed to the high altitudes. Denver, the Mile High City, is literally a mile above sea level, or 5,280 feet. But, if you come from the coast, as I did a decade ago, getting used to living at this height takes some time.

If you have visitors coming this summer, or if you are one of the many who plan to come to Denver for the Democratic National Convention in August, planning for the visit should include an awareness of the symptoms of altitude sickness. While most folks can acclimatize easily at altitudes below 8,000, the shock of even being a “mile high” is too much for some. I had headaches for nearly a month when I first moved to Denver from San Francisco. And, the first time I went to elevations of about 10,000 feet, I got very ill with flu like symptoms for several days.

So, what goes on at high altitudes? The air is “thinner,” as they say. In other words, the body has to work a bit harder to keep the blood saturated with oxygen. It does this by producing more red blood cells to help carry the oxygen, but it takes a bit of time for the body to “acclimatize,” to adjust to the new conditions.

Here is what to look out for within the first 48 hours of being at a higher altitude than you are accustomed to:
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Breathlessness
  • Sleeplessness
  • Swelling of feet and legs
If your symptoms are more severe, you should see a doctor.

To combat these effects, take it easy the first 24 hours of so, although stay active. Sleeping drops respiration levels naturally, so if you are already not getting enough oxygen, your symptoms may increase if you try to sleep right away.

Accelerating the acclimatization process is critical in combating the effects of high altitude. Stay on top of a few things and you should get through it just fine. For example:
  • Avoid strenuous exercise and activities during the first 24 or 48 hours.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially water. Some say up to 4 quarts a day if you can.
  • Be extra careful with alcohol, since its effects are heightened (no pun intended) at high altitudes. If it takes you two drinks to feel something at sea level, you will most certainly feel the alcohol’s effects with one, for example.
  • Avoid tobacco, too, because of its impact on your lungs.
  • Eat a high carbohydrate diet for the first few meals, some experts say.
Talk with your doctor about medications that can help you ward off the effects of high altitude.

Consult with your health care professionals if you have heart or lung disease before arriving at your high altitude destination. If you already experience edema, or swelling, for example, you may want to wear compression socks or stockings during your stay to minimize any further swelling or discomfort.

There is nothing quite like time in the mountains and you will want to enjoy every minute of your time in Denver or other parts of Colorado. If you prepare and plan on taking extra good care of yourself during the first few days of your stay, you will have a great time with minimal ill effects.

Do you have a “Rocky Mountain High” story about altitude and how you coped? Post your story here. If you have questions or would like to look into buying or renting various products that might enhance your comfort while in the Rocky Mountain state, please contact us. Be Unlimited during your time in Colorado! Visit us at Capabilities.

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