Altitude And Your Health

Stay Informed about Altitude Illness or AMS, (Acute Mountain Sickness). Ask about Advice and Prescriptions for Altitude Illness from our on-call Physician Dr. David J. Gray MD.

Altitude Illness, Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS.

These are general terms to describe how one might feel when visiting Summit County, Grand County or Eagle County, Colorado, where the average elevation is over 9000ft.  Visitors to the Central Rockies may feel the effects of the high altitude whether you come here to go skiing in the winter or biking in the summer. Altitude sickness occurs because the body is used to receiving 96% to 99% oxygen at sea level. When visiting the higher elevations the body receives less oxygen and therefore you may feel ill.


Symptoms of AMS include:


  • Headaches or migraines.
  • Nausea and fatigue.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Trouble sleeping.


If the symptoms progress; left untreated it can result in 


  • HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema).
  • HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema). Both will result in a trip to the emergency room.


An interesting article was written by an author who lives at sea level and visited a couple higher elevation oxygen bars.

Why does it occur?

Altitude illness or Acute Mountain Sickness results because your body is picking up less oxygen. Each red blood cell can carry four parts of oxygen.  When all the red blood cells pick up four parts of oxygen the body is receiving 100% oxygenation. At higher elevation the air is “thinner”, that means there is less oxygen per cubic foot as compared to sea level.  Contrary to what many people believe, the air contains the same percentage of oxygen, 21%. In fact, there is less oxygen per cubic foot, resulting in “thinner” air. In addition to the body picking up less oxygen symptoms of altitude illness are caused by the change in atmospheric pressure. Lower atmospheric pressure causes “thinner” air.  The easiest way to explain this is using an example of a bag of potato chips.  Many of you that have driven to the mountains may have had a bag of chips in the car that exploded.  As you rise in elevation the atmospheric pressure decreases causing the air to expand.  A bag of chips sealed at lower elevation starts to expand when brought up to the high altitude resulting in a bag of chips that is about to pop.  The body takes time to adjust to the change in pressure, therefore as you climb in elevation the blood vessels in your body are also expanding, this reduces the body’s ability to absorb oxygen.  The membranes that transfer oxygen from the lungs to the blood are compressed, making it more difficult for the body to transfer oxygen to the cells. It is important to remember that the effects of high altitude can cause altitude illness in pets, too. If you are traveling with a dog, read this article on how to help your beloved pet adjust to the changes in air pressure and oxygen levels while in the mountains.


The number one problem most people have when getting to higher elevation is lack of hydration. Staying hydrated is essential to your body’s health when staying at high altitude. Your body will naturally excrete fluids at altitude, thereby causing the blood to thicken, this will concentrate the red blood cells in our veins and arteries. The higher density of red blood cells means we can pick up more oxygen. Hydration is extremely important to ensure proper functioning of your respiratory system. It is recommended that you drink at least one gallon of water per day to avoid dehydration due to this effect. You must drink water constantly at altitude because your body will continue to excrete fluid as it tries to adjust to these changes.

Treatment with oxygen

Oxygen is used to treat AMS and Altitude Illness. Using just a small amount of oxygen will do wonders for the body. A treatment level of 2 liters per minute (LPM) is common for most Adults and 1-2 (LPM) is good for most children. Using oxygen when you first arrive will prevent any symptoms from occurring. If you already have symptoms such as a headache, nausea or fatigue most will go away in a short period of time. Headaches have been known to go away in less than 15 minutes. When visiting, many people will sleep with oxygen which allows the body to adjust to the high altitude while you sleep. Additionally, when sleeping with oxygen, it’s as if you are sleeping at sea level, resulting in a more restful night sleep. The best equipment for sleeping with oxygen is oxygen concentrator. Oxygen concentrators produce their own oxygen and will never run out.

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