I’m no stranger to health problems on the road. I’ve suffered a blood clot in Florida, a gallstone attack in Thailand and pink eye in Costa Rica. That’s why I tote a virtual drug store with me when I travel, including Cipro, sleeping pills, Neosporin, Visine, Tums, Claritin, Imodium, insect repellent with DEET, several types of band aids, Ibuprofen and baby aspirin.
But none of this prepared me for the nasty case of high altitude sickness that hit me in Aspen, Colorado this past week. (I traveled there courtesy of the PRSA Travel & Tourism conference, where I spoke to public relations professionals about the importance of working with bloggers).
Also known as acute mountain sickness, the illness’ symptoms came very soon after I flew into Aspen, about 7,900 feet above sea level. A simple stroll at Maroon Lake near Aspen’s most photographed mountains – another 2,000 feet up – left me gasping, with a throbbing headache. And when I thrashed around in the middle of the night, unable to breathe with a vise-like tightness in my chest, I knew I was in trouble.
If you have to go to an ER in an unfamiliar city, Aspen during the off season isn’t a bad one. At 4:30 a.m. I was the only patient, so the nurse and emergency doctor on duty put me through the required tests (EKG, chest X-Ray, CAT scan) quickly. The biggest worry centered on my lungs; some forms of altitude sickness can lead to edema (fluid build-up in the lungs), or an embolism (my blood clot history puts me at a higher risk).
Luckily, my worst symptom turned out to be an oxygen blood level of 84% – unusually low but treatable. After sucking down pure oxygen for about two hours in the hospital, I was released back to the St. Regis with an oxygen tank and a prescription for an oxygen filtration system, delivered to my room a few hours later. I used it liberally, as did my friend Kathryn, who was also feeling ill from the altitude.
Don’t let this happen to you. Consider the following tips to prevent high altitude sickness.
1. Consider driving instead of flying to your destination. I’ve been to Aspen before, as well as nearby Beaver Creek, Boulder and Estes Park. But I had always flown into Denver, a lower altitude at 5,000 feet, and then driven into the mountains. Those few hours give your body more time to acclimate to the thinner air.
2. Stay low on your first day. Within hours of landing in Aspen, I went up another 2,000 feet to visit Maroon Lake and view the famed Maroon Bells. In retrospect, it would have been better to give myself a day in Aspen proper before going up higher.
3. If you are having problems, take it easy. The beauty of Aspen’s wilderness makes you want to go outside immediately and run, bike, hike, what have you. But if you are already sick, doing these activities can make your condition even worse. Consider a spa day with a trip to the oxygen bar in the St. Regis instead.
4. Hydrate, hydrate, hydate. Water is always a good idea in the West, where the dry air seems to take all the moisture out of your skin. It can also help alleviate minor headaches.
5. Avoid alcohol. I only had a few sips of wine at Montagna at Little Nell on my first night, but even that probably made my condition worse. Although ski resorts are known for their party scene, I’ve never been able to handle more than one or two drinks when I’m up so high.
6. Big meals aren’t a good idea either. Our dinner at Little Nell encompassed three courses, including cured meats, a pork loin and a soup that seemed a little on the salty side. Fresh vegetables and a light salad would have been a better choice.
7. Keep in mind where you’ve been. Did I get sick because I had been at the Dead Sea, about 400 feet below sea level, about a week before my trip to the Rockies? It probably didn’t help, the doctor acknowledged.
8. If you are assigned oxygen, keep your tank for the entire visit. After two days with the oxygen tank, I felt more like myself and decided to leave it at the St. Regis while transferring. I shouldn’t have. Even on my last night, I still felt under the weather. Kat was mad that I turned it in, too.
9. Pack drugs if necessary. Diamax, a medicine that allows your blood to process oxygen faster, is often prescribed for altitude sickness. You need to start it three days before your trip, so it didn’t work for me this time, but I’ll pick some up for my next mountain trip. (There are some side effects associated with the drug, so I’ll give it a test run before I book that ticket to Machu Pichu).
Calling all skiers: Have you ever suffered altitude sickness? If now, how do you prevent it? Tell me in the comments!