Altitude Sickness

Posted by Maggie on January 12, 2015

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You've been looking forward to this fabulous skiing vacation for a long time. You finally arrive – but you feel like crawling into bed rather than hitting the slopes. You've come down with altitude sickness.

What is it?  Altitude sickness or acute mountain sickness is a group of symptoms people can experience due to low oxygen levels at higher altitude.   The most common symptom is a headache.  This can be accompanied by stomach upset, fatigue/weakness, dizziness, and/or difficulty sleeping.   Less frequently, people can feel shortness of breath when exercising or with any exertion.  Some people describe it as “feeling hung over.” The symptoms usually start 12-24 hours after reaching the altitude.  This may be just the time you are hitting the PayDay lift at Park City Mountain Resort.

Who gets it?  Anyone can feel the symptoms and it can happen to people at any age, gender or fitness level.   It can be felt at altitudes higher than 1 mile high – 5,280 feet.  The base of the Park City Mountain Resort is 6,900 feet and the top of the Jupiter peak is 10,000 feet.   It is most commonly a problem at altitudes over 8,000 feet.

Is it dangerous?  It can be.  If the symptoms are ignored and the person continues on to higher altitudes, a dangerous progression can develop leading to swelling in the lungs or the brain.   These conditions are life threatening.  It's important to watch your kids for any odd changes in behavior – especially if they are too young to tell you that they feel sick.

What can be done to prevent it?  Our bodies can and will adjust to higher altitudes with time.  If you already know that you or someone in your family is sensitive to higher altitudes you can still have a great mountain vacation with some minor modifications.   Instead of flying to your destination, consider driving.  The slower change in altitude may be all that is necessary to prevent the uncomfortable symptoms.  It is helpful to rest at your destination prior to exerting yourself with strenuous activity.  You may need to consider staying in Park City for a couple of days before heading up to the slopes so that your body can adjust to the lower oxygen levels at higher altitude.

It is also recommended to increase fluid intake for the first several days at higher altitude.  That should be with water and not “Polygamy Porter.”   Alcohol, sedatives, smoking and excess stress should be avoided if possible. 

There are also medications available to help prevent altitude sickness, so talk with your doctor and get his or her advice.

What if I’m pregnant?  I usually advise my patients not to venture above 8,000 feet when they are pregnant.  I don’t advise snow skiing or boarding while pregnant because the change in center of gravity increases the chances of a fall which could be dangerous for both the mother and the baby. The other tips for increasing hydration and slowly ascending to altitude also help expecting mothers minimize altitude symptoms.

In summary, the concern of altitude sickness should not prevent a family from planning a fun filled winter vacation adventure.   With some minor modifications, the whole family can enjoy the time even if one family member is sensitive to the altitude.   Just remember to hydrate and “sleep low, climb high.”



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Comment posted by Brian on December 6, 2013 9:03 AM MST

I've never experienced altitude sickness on any of my trips to Utah. When I travel to Colorado, Breck (base elevation 9600'), I get it the first day without fail. I always feel like I have flu-like symptoms. No nausea, but achy body, low fever, and fatigue.

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Comment posted by Julia M. Johnson on February 4, 2013 5:37 PM MST

I plan to ski at Park City Feb. 19-26. I have been
told that I can order a concentrator for my room
for the nights I need it. Where can I do that?

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Comment posted by lisa schmitt on February 17, 2012 3:01 PM MST

Dr. L, thank you so much for your comments regarding altitude sickness. My son, Taylor was very sick the last time we were in PCity. I thought I was never going to be able to get him on the plane it was so bad. He did not get to feeling better until we landed back in Texas. I love reading your info!!!

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Response posted by Maggie L on February 23, 2012 8:35 PM MST

Next time you come to Park City - I would recommend trying some medication for you son before you come. Consult your physician and hopefully they will be happy to help you out with such a severe case of altitude sickness.


Comment posted by Shawneepooh on January 18, 2012 8:00 AM MST

I love the doctor's perspective on this, esp the wisdom about not flying to the destination or waiting to get on the slopes for a couple days acclimation to the elevation.
Thanks, Dr. Land...

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Comment posted by Tania on January 10, 2012 3:33 PM MST

Thanks for the great advice!

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Comment posted by Kristen on January 5, 2012 10:35 PM MST

Great info!!! I've traveled with many who have had a mild case and it was NOT pretty. They hated it so much they were ready to hop on a plane and go home. Best to take the steps to avoid than ruin an amazing vacation.

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Comment posted by Karin on January 5, 2012 3:50 PM MST

Thanks Maggie, great info. Another reason to hydrate!

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