It has everything to do with how well the body functions at increasing elevation. In Summit County, Colorado, we live at an average elevation of 9000′ (2743 m). Most bodies start a significant physiological response to 8000′ (2438 m). Even healthy athletes experience shortness of breath during certain activities that wouldn’t be noticeable at lower elevations. The body compensates by circulating more oxygen-carrying red blood cells, because there isn’t as much oxygen packed into each breath you take. Heart rate increases, you take quicker breaths, speeding up your ventilation. You are hyperventilating. If you manage well enough for a couple weeks, your body will eventually start creating more red blood cells to circulate more oxygen throughout your body at all times. This process will peak at about three months.
We often get questions about the canisters of oxygen sold at convenience stores, souvenir shops and gas stations across Colorado and whether or not they make any difference. There is a 100% consensus among every physician, athlete, EMT and ski patroller we have ever interviewed that they do not.
Why not? Dr. Chris has been practicing medicine at 9000′ for 20 years in Frisco, CO, so I asked her a couple of the questions that have come up at our clinic and on our blog recently and frequently.
How much oxygen is needed to actually mitigate symptoms of altitude sickness?
For someone with low blood oxygen saturation, our target would be 90% . They should be put on a concentrator or a large tank [of oxygen]. The adult dose is 2 to 4 liters per minute, the pediatric dose can be between 1/4 L per minute and 1 L per minute, 24 hours a day, for up to a week, or until their oxygen saturation can maintain at 90%. Less than that, and usually, it will drop again after 10 minutes off oxygen; and it’ll often be lower when you sleep, too.
What if I bought ten of these canisters of oxygen available at the gas station and breathed all of them in, one after the other. Would that make a difference?
You might get three hours worth of oxygen if you bought ten of those store-bought cans, which might help an altitude sickness-induced headache. But again, your oxygen would likely drop shortly thereafter, and you would be experiencing the same symptoms.
What happens if someone struggling with acclimatization also contracts COVID-19 or another disease with associated respiratory complications?
We don’t know. Their oxygen requirement might be higher. All of us at altitude might be at greater risk than someone living at sea level.
When do you make the decision to send someone to a lower elevation? How low?
If they are having trouble breathing in spite of being on 4 L of oxygen per minute. If they need more than that, we would send them to a lower elevation. Most people are fine going to Denver. By Georgetown (8530’/2600 m, a town between Summit County and Denver), they’ll experience an improvement. It’s above 2500 m where altitude issues become problematic.
Research in recent years, including our own, is revealing many other different variables that may affect an individual’s ability to acclimatize to high elevations, including different hormones, genetics, and muscle mass. We continue to advise anyone traveling to the Colorado mountain region above 7000′ from lower elevations to stay hydrated and well-rested, and time a slow ascent, planning to spend at least 24 hours in Denver, or another comparable lower elevation, before arriving at your final destination.
Roberto Santos is from the remote island of Saipan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. He has since lived in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and has made Colorado his current home, where he is a web developer, musician, avid outdoorsman and prolific reader. When he is not developing applications and graphics, you can find him performing with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, snowboarding Vail or Keystone, soaking in hot springs, or reading non-fiction at a brewery.