Acute Altitude Illness affects about 7.4% of travelers to mountain resort areas, including Frisco, Colorado which sits at an altitude of about 2800 meters. Dr. Kendrick Adnan, MD, MSPH is an emergency medicine physician associated with Vail Health. Dr. Adnan often sees visitors to Vail and other popular ski and vacation areas in Summit County that are experiencing Acute Altitude Illness. I sat down with Dr. Adnan, and we discussed the treatment of Acute Altitude Illness as well as signs, symptoms, risk factors, and prevention of Acute Altitude Illness.
What causes Acute Altitude Illness?
- Acute Altitude Illness develops when the body responds to hypoxia, a low level of oxygen in the blood. Areas of high altitude have a lower concentration of oxygen in the air than lower altitudes, which makes your body work harder to put oxygen in your blood. Your body responds to the lower oxygen concentration by increasing how often and how deeply you breathe. This causes a decrease in carbon dioxide and increase in tpH in the blood. Your heart, lungs, blood vessels, and kidneys all respond to the low pH in your blood, which can cause the signs and symptoms of Acute Altitude Illness.
- Some people will experience severe forms of Acute Altitude Illness called High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema or High-Altitude Cerebral Edema. These are life-threatening conditions that can cause death in both adults and children if not treated promptly by a medical professional.
What are the signs and symptoms of Acute Altitude Illness in adults?
- Decreased appetite
- Shortness of breath on exertion
- Decreased exercise tolerance
- Chest tightness
What are the signs and symptoms of Acute Altitude Illness in children?
- Poor feeding
- Pale or blue-tinged skin
- Sleeping too much or too little
What is the treatment for Acute Altitude Illness (AAI)?
The best treatment for AAI is supplemental oxygen through a nasal cannula and descent to a lower elevation. You will need to visit a healthcare provider, clinic, or hospital to get supplemental oxygen if your oxygen level drops below 89%. Visitors to high-altitude areas may be hesitant to abandon their vacation plans in order to descend to a lower altitude. A healthcare provider may be able to prescribe medications to help you recover from AAI. However, if your low oxygen level does not improve with supplemental oxygen and medication, it is important to descend to an area of lower altitude.
Studies show that acetazolamide, dexamethasone, and tadalafil are medications that can potentially treat Acute Altitude Illness and/or High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema. A healthcare provider may prescribe these medications for you if appropriate.
What increases the chance that I will experience Acute Altitude Illness?
- Traveling by airplane from low altitude to high altitude.
- Being a resident of low altitude
- Past episode of Acute Altitude Illness
- Physical exertion at high altitude, especially in colder temperatures
What can be done to prevent Acute Altitude Illness and High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema?
- A slower ascent will decrease your risk of AAI. Dr. Adnan recommends spending the night in Denver after air travel if you are planning to visit a high-altitude area.
- Avoid strenuous exercise like skiing, hiking, and mountain biking for 48-72 hours after arrival to a high-altitude area.
- Buy a pulse oximeter to check your oxygen level. A level above 89% is normal at high-altitude and does not require treatment.
- Ask your healthcare provider about taking Diamox (acetazolamide) for 2-3 days before you arrive at a high-altitude destination. You will need a prescription for this medication.
- Avoid medications that decrease your respiratory rate like opiates, sleeping medications, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates.
Schafermeyer, R. W. DynaMed. Acute Altitude Illnesses. EBSCO Information Services. https://www.dynamed.com/condition/acute-altitude-illnesses. Accessed November 19, 2021. Simancas-Racines D, Arevalo-Rodriguez I, Osorio D, Franco JVA, Xu Y, Hidalgo R. Interventions for treating acute high altitude illness. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2018, Issue 6. Art. No.: CD009567. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD009567.pub2. Accessed 03 November 2021.
Sasha Scott is a physician assistant student at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. She is originally from Indianapolis, IN and attended Purdue University for undergrad. Sasha enjoys running, cross stitching, cooking, and exploring Philadelphia when she is not studying!