6 tips to skip altitude sickness when you travel

17 May 2024
6 tips to skip altitude sickness when you travel

If you’re heading to the mountains this summer, you may want to check the altitude of where you’re going. 

Did you know that Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a whopping 7,200 feet above sea level, making it the highest state capital and the third-highest city in America? If you take the ski lift in Santa Fe, you’ll be over 10,000 feet in elevation. The views are breathtaking, and so is the altitude.

More than 100 million people travel to high-altitude mountainous regions in the US every year, and altitude sickness is extremely common. Just ask Days of Our Lives star Greg Vaughan, who was hospitalized with it on vacation in Colorado.

People who live regularly at high altitudes face less risk because their bodies have had time to adjust to living with less oxygen, but for visitors, the effects can be extreme.

If the altitude where you plan to travel is significantly higher than the altitude you normally live in, you need to know how to recognize and manage altitude sickness.

What is altitude sickness

Altitude sickness is caused by lower air pressure and decreased oxygen availability at higher elevations.

Symptoms of altitude sickness can include:

  • Headache: This is often one of the first symptoms and can be severe.
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Insomnia or disturbed sleep
  • Shortness of breath, especially during physical activity

The severity of symptoms can range from mildly annoying to life-threatening.

The stress placed on the body, particularly the heart and lungs, in high altitudes is extreme.

At what altitude does it occur?

Most commonly, altitude sickness is experienced above 8,000 feet; however, people experience altitude sickness at different elevation levels. 

If you regularly live at sea level, visiting a location that’s 4,000 feet in elevation may cause some breathlessness when climbing stairs, for example.

Symptoms usually start with a light headache and sometimes end there. After arriving at a high-altitude resort, you may find yourself winded when walking briskly or working out. 

6 Tips to avoid traveler’s altitude sickness

The human body is amazingly adaptive, but the process can take time. Here are the steps you can take to avoid or manage altitude sickness.

  1. Give yourself an extra day or two. If you’re flying to a high-altitude location, take an extra day or two at a lower altitude to give your body time to adjust gradually to the reduced oxygen.
  2. Avoid strenuous activities for the first 24-48 hours of arriving.
  3. Stay well hydrated. Drink more water than you normally do and all throughout the day. Put a water bottle by your bed to sip on at night too. This will help ward off the headaches.
  4. Eating a diet rich in carbohydrates, especially if you are physically active at a high altitude, can help too. Carbs require less oxygen for the body to metabolize.
  5. Avoid drinking alcohol and caffeine for the first 24-48 hours to minimize the chances of developing symptoms.
  6. Avoid cigarettes, sedatives, and sleeping pills because they interfere with the body’s ability to adjust to the altitude.

Pro tip: If you have any risk factors, chat with your doctor before you go. They may be able to prescribe preventative medication to help you acclimate faster.

Managing altitude sickness

If you start to develop symptoms such as headache, nausea, dizziness, or trouble sleeping, consider moving to a lower altitude for a day or two. Even a descent of 500-1,000 feet can make a difference.

Mountain climbers recommend taking ibuprofen to pre-treat headaches. If you are going to be exercising – skiing, climbing, hiking, etc. – in high altitude, consider taking the medication in the morning and evening for the first couple of days to keep headaches from starting.

Also, practice deep breathing every few minutes to lower the carbon dioxide in your blood. Practicing deep breathing can also help you fall asleep quicker at high altitudes.

Take frequent breaks. Sit down, and drink some water often.

If you have a heart condition, beware!

Visiting high-altitude locations can be dangerous for people with high blood pressure or certain heart conditions, according to a report by the American Heart Association.

People with high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, heart rhythm abnormalities, or heart failure should first check with a healthcare professional. 

Consequences can be serious and even fatal, such as sudden cardiac death, which can occur within the first 24 hours of altitude change.

Final word

The mountains have something for everyone and can offer truly amazing experiences.

While there are health risks associated with traveling to higher elevations, they can be lessened by making basic preparations and paying attention.

Ultimately, the more a traveler knows, the better they can prepare and enjoy their trip. 

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Damian Tysdal

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.