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Altitude Sickness, It’s A Real Thing!

Altitude Sickness or Altitude Related Illness is common amongst travelers heading to heights well above sea level. Heights of over 4000 ft can provoke symptoms of Altitude Sickness. On a recent trip to Salt Lake City, Utah I learned exactly what that meant.

After any long flight, I always feel a little woozy. Being in a confined space with artificial air conditioning and processed food for many hours will have an effect, even on the most frequent fliers.

Upon arrival in Salt Lake City, I first felt ok, but the following three days were to show me that there was something (not) in the air, making me feel ill. Lower oxygen levels and pressure are the main causes.

I arrived in SLC at about 5pm. My sister was coming in on another flight so I waited in the terminal for her arrival. I noticed that I had a case of the burps. There wasn’t an explanation for it. I never drink carbonated drinks and I hadn’t eaten any spicy foods. I mistakenly attributed the burping to the change in cabin pressure from the flight and the excitement and arrival of my sister. In reality, it was a mild form of HAFE (high altitude flatus expulsion), a gastrointestinal symptom caused by the change in barometric pressure . Luckily I only burped!

Our accommodation was in the town of Sandy, popular with winter ski patrons and absolutely beautiful in the summer. Sandy is at an altitude of 4,450 ft (1,356 m)  just above the level that symptoms of Altitude Sickness manifest.  (Photo above, Snowbird Ski Resort – Hidden Peak reaches 11,000 ft/ 3,353 m)

As we settled in, it was getting late but we still wanted to get some groceries and eat something. At the supermarket, I remember feeling overwhelmed with nausea and a sharp headache as if a power vacuum was trying to suck out my right eye. I attributed it to jet-lag, hunger and exhaustion from the previous days of traveling.

After a light meal and some catching up with my sister, I realized that I couldn’t follow the conversation any longer and just needed to collapse into bed.

On day 1 of arrival, fatigue is normal, but the unusual thing is that I felt that exhaustion every day.

In the mornings I would feel tired and wake up with a mildly bloody nose. Fortunately, I did not have full flowing blood loss. Every morning I’d wake up with a runny nose of dark pink mucus. Every afternoon at about 2pm I would have an “attack”; overwhelming nausea, similar to seasickness and a strong headache at the back of my eyes. A paracetamol tablet and a nap usually helped.

Nighttime sleeping was unpredictable. There again, I had attributed it to jet-lag. I just couldn’t get into a healthy rhythm.

My sister, on the other hand, suffered only a slight headache but no other discomfort. After three days of this, she Googled my symptoms and discovered Altitude Sickness. Although I do not advocate online self-diagnosis, the symptom descriptions and circumstances were spot-on.

The Mayo Clinic defines Altitude Sickness as:

Physical distress from difficulty adjusting to lower oxygen pressure at high altitude.

Symptoms tend to occur within hours after arrival at high altitude and include a headache, nausea, shortness of breath, and inability to exercise. Mild cases may resolve in one to three days. Severe cases may require oxygen, medications, and moving to a lower altitude.

Mild Altitude Sickness if referred to as AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) and is the most common form. Hydration is very important and eating carbs helps too.

Severe cases referred to as HACE (High-Altitude Cerebral Edema) or HAPE (High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema) require medical assistance and should not be overlooked.

Another interesting thing about AMS is that the people who suffer from it are genetically engineered that way. According to a study at Colorado University, they were able to predict with nearly 100 percent accuracy who would get acute mountain sickness. Researchers identified six genes which determine your chances of manifesting symptoms. My sister and I share the same parents, but apparently, we don’t share the same genes.

From now on, I will be checking the altitude of my destination and looking for the nearest Italian restaurant where I can carb load!

Read more about Altitude Sickness on the Mayo Clinic website.

Read about the study at The School of Medicine at the University of Colorado.

Words and Photo by Celia Abernethy

Disclaimer: This article is a first-person narration and is not in any way intended to offer medical advice. If you suspect that you are suffering from Altitude Sickness in any form, consult a physician.