Altitude sickness and your snowboarding trip

If you’re planning a trip to a mountain destination for snowboarding, you should know about altitude sickness. Please note that the author is a journalist and not a medical or health professional. It’s probably best to talk with your doctor before you go to a high-elevation ski area for the first time.

What is altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness, sometimes called acute mountain sickness, is a condition that some people get simply by being in the mountains. It can be merely unpleasant, or it can be life-threatening.

What are some symptoms of altitude sickness?

Here are some symptoms of more mild cases of altitude sickness:

  • Dizziness
  • Headache (may be worse at night)
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sleeplessness or difficulty sleeping
  • Vomiting

Here are some symptoms of more severe cases:

  • You can’t walk in a straight line
  • Chest gets tight
  • Confusion
  • Persistent coughing, especially of blood
  • Listlessness or social withdraw
  • Skin turns pale, gray, or blue

What causes altitude sickness?

To put it simplistically, it’s caused by your body breathing in less oxygen when you’re in the mountains. Its symptoms can be compounded by simple fatigue if you’re out of shape and trying to engage in vigorous physical activity such as learning to snowboard. Note, however, that you may get altitude sickness even if you are physically fit.

Who gets altitude sickness?

It’s hard if not impossible to predict who will get altitude sickness. In fact, you may have no trouble during your first trip to the mountains but be hit hard on a return trip.

Roughly 20 percent of people who go to 8,000 feet or higher have some symptoms; among those who ascend to 10,000 feet, 40 percent do. (Merck Home Health Book, “Altitude Diseases.”)

What can you do to avoid altitude sickness?

  • Before getting to your destination, spend a night at an intermediate elevation. If you’re going from New York City (average elevation: 30 feet) to Keystone, Colorado (base elevation: 9,280), spend a night in Denver, the mile-high city.
  • Prior to going to the mountains (and while there), drink a lot of water, avoid caffeine and alcohol, and don’t smoke.
  • While at elevation, eat a lot of carbohydrates.
  • Take acetazolamide (Diamox) prior to and while you’re at elevation. This drug helps speed up acclimatization. Other medications that might be helpful include Nifedipine (Procardia), or dexamethasone.
  • If you’re inclined towards natural and herbal remedies, an article written by Denver Naturopathic Clinic has a brief review of ideas that people have tried.
  • Take your snowboard vacation at a resort with a lower base elevation.

What can you do if you have altitude sickness?

With any luck, you will get over your altitude sickness before your vacation is over. If not, you can take some steps to lessen your symptoms.

  • Rest.
  • Take Advil, Aleve, Motrin or Tylenol to alleviate headaches.
  • Take supplemental oxygen.

Note that if you have severe symptoms, you should retreat to a lower elevation immediately, seek medical attention, or both.

Where can I read more about altitude sickness?

It’s a smart idea to talk with your doctor before you head to the mountains, especially if you have ongoing issues affecting your heart or lungs.

If you’d like to read more on the topic, the Mayo Clinic has a 5-page summary that you might find useful (“Preparing for safe travel to high altitude“). Among other things, it discusses the different versions of what we commonly call “altitude sickness.” These include Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE, which is fluid in the lungs), and High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE, or fluid in the brain).

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