When I made my first trip to Colorado, I never considered the fact that I might have trouble with the altitude. I've previously traveled to such high altitudes as Cusco, Peru, with no trouble, so I just naturally assumed that going to an altitude half as high in Denver would be a piece of cake. Yeah, I was so very wrong, and not doing my research beforehand nearly ruined my trip.
Denver is known as the Mile High City for a reason — the altitude is legitimately a mile above sea level — which is more than 5,000 feet higher than I'm used to here in New York City. The day I arrived, I noticed I was slightly short of breath and had a dull headache as a result of the lower oxygen pressure. According to Dr. Karly Powell, who practices at the International Health and Wellness Center at Colorado Springs's Garden of the Gods Collection, those are two prevalent symptoms of acute mountain sickness, the most common form of altitude sickness. She says you can also expect symptoms like nausea, loss of appetite, or fatigue from the thinner air if you aren't careful.
Your best plan of action for a quick trip that doesn't allow you a slow ascent to the higher altitude is to make sure you're prepared. "Adequate water and mineral intake can help prevent many of the symptoms of altitude sickness. Shoot for 80 ounces of water per day, avoid caffeine, and consider adding in a high-quality mineral supplement," Dr. Powell says. She also recommends her personal favorite over-the-counter treatment: cordyceps mushrooms. She says, "It may help boost energy and support oxygen utilization in the body and can be used for two weeks before travel for AMS prevention."
Sadly for me, though, I did not prepare. So on day two of my trip, I found myself with what felt like the worst headache of my life, and it hit me faster than anything I'd ever experienced. I was taking a shower soon after waking up, and all of a sudden I almost passed out because my head hurt so badly. A quick lie-down with a large bottle of water and some ibuprofen helped, but unfortunately for me, I never quite acclimated to the altitude and had a dull headache and some nausea throughout my five days in Colorado. For most, though, you can expect to get used to the altitude within one to three days. However, everyone is different.
If you plan on heading up a mountain to ski sometime this Winter, these tips are important to keep in mind, as the mountains are obviously even higher than the already-high altitudes.
"Dry air, lack of easy access to water, and exertion may accelerate dehydration. Exertion and exercise can dramatically increase the risk for fluid accumulation in the lungs," Dr. Powell says. "It is critical for skiers and snowboarders to familiarize themselves with the symptoms of altitude sickness and have a plan to get down the mountain quickly should they start to experience any of these symptoms." She also mentions that having electrolyte or coconut water on hand is wise.
If you find yourself with increasing altitude sickness symptoms while you're at a higher elevation, Dr. Powell advises you descend as soon as you can or you run the risk of permanent damage. "Cough, shortness of breath, or headache that persists more than a few hours after descent to lower altitude warrants evaluation at an urgent care center," she says. "Disorientation, difficulty breathing, change in mental faculties, or loss of control of body movements are signs that immediate care is necessary and you should call 911, as these symptoms may be rapidly progressing and fatal."