High Times: What You Need to Know About Altitude Sickness


How exciting it was to plan your trip to Boulder.

All that hiking and cycling, you could hardly wait. In the evening, you looked forward to trying some fine wines, knowing that Boulder has five Master Sommeliers out of only 147 in the United States. Or perhaps a flight of craft beers at one of Boulder County’s dozens of breweries is on your must-do list.

But you find yourself with a nagging headache and a slightly queasy stomach. Add to that, you feel oddly tired after only an hour or two of walking around town and you can’t sleep.

What gives? Chances are you don’t have the flu. Rather, you’re likely to be feeling the effects of Boulder’s altitude of 5,400 feet. While most people don’t experience altitude sickness below 8,000 feet, some feel the effect of the reduced amount of oxygen their bodies consume even at Boulder’s altitude.

And that blue, blue sky and dazzling sun that offers such a vivid impression? It’s due to less water vapor in the air, meaning that if you aren’t drinking a lot of water — as much as twice your normal amount is recommended — you’re likely dehydrated. Maybe even slightly sunburned. That lack of water vapor also intensifies the sun’s effect on your skin.

First of all, don’t feel bad. You’re not an altitude weenie. Experts do not know why some people struggle with high altitude more than others do. It has nothing to do with fitness levels or an inability to push yourself. You can’t will yourself to make more red blood cells, which is one of the ways sea level bodies adjust.

So practice a little mindfulness and check your ego at the trailhead. There are steps you can take to support your body while it acclimates, usually in one to three days. One is the water thing. Drink up, my friend. Other advice includes eating foods that are high in potassium, such as  potatoes, bananas and legumes. Complex carbohydrates can also boost energy. Eat lightly to avoid putting a heavy burden on your displeased gut.

A prescription drug,  Diamox (Acetazolamide), can also help when taken prophylactically.

Sorry to harsh your mountain high, but wine drinkers and beer quaffers, you should consider abstaining. Or approach alcohol with care. Already have reservations at Frasca Food and Wine where Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey is the co-owner? Imbibe less.

Same thing if you’re planning to buy a bottle of wine from M.S. Brett Zimmerman at the Boulder Wine Merchant or dine at the Flagstaff House, which has won the Wine Spectator’s Grand Award more than 30 years in a row. You don’t  have to worry about that pricey bottle of wine going to waste. Colorado law allows you to take a corked bottle of wine back to your hotel room. Save it for the next day.

Similar advice for those whose reason for living (perhaps a slight exaggeration) is craft beer: Spread that brewery tour over a couple of days. Try a flight of three beers instead of five, or if you have more discipline than most of us, just take a sip or two from that larger flight. Since alcohol affects you more strongly, use Boulder’s excellent transit system or be prepared to call a car service or a cab. FYI, police also issue tickets for BUI — biking under the influence.

With either beer or wine, keep chugging the H2O, since alcohol exacerbates dehydration.

As to the question you really want to ask: What about pot and altitude? Evidence-based research doesn’t yet appear to exist, but it’s safe to say that exercising caution is a good idea. As is — say it with us — keeping hydrated. Also, some good advice when trying edibles at any elevation where pot is legal: Start with a small dose and remember it takes an hour to take effect. It’s strong stuff.

If you’re planning to travel to higher elevations, do your best to let your body get acclimated to Boulder’s altitude first. If you get sicker as you get into the mountains, the most effective thing to do is to return to a lower altitude.

In rare cases, altitude sickness, also called acute mountain sickness, can become more serious, even fatal. High altitude cerebral edema has a quick onset, with symptoms including poor coordination, slurred speech, poor coordination and a very severe headache. If those symptoms occur, go to an emergency room immediately. High altitude pulmonary edema produces symptoms such as coughing up pinkish phlegm caused by the lungs filling with fluid. Ditto on the ER.

After all these cautions, you should know that the majority of visitors to Boulder feel just fine — most likely better than fine. There’s a reason they came. It’s a great place to be.

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