Monday Medical: High-altitude health tips

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— Traveling to Steamboat Springs can take your breath away emotionally and physically. The views on a crisp, clear winter morning are a sight to behold.

And for some visitors, altitude can affect how they feel.

According to the Altitude Research Center in Denver, Acute Mountain Sickness affects as many as one in every four visitors traveling to Colorado’s mountains from sea level. Symptoms such as headache, nausea, fatigue, lightheadedness, rapid pulse and trouble sleeping that appear in the first 72 hours of your arrival may indicate AMS.

Typically, AMS sets in at altitudes higher than 8,000 feet. Experts suggest one way for individuals to avoid AMS is to acclimatize. Fortunately, the lower altitude in the valley here in Steamboat Springs can help you do just that. The altitude downtown is 6,695 feet and the altitude at the base of Steamboat Ski Area and most of the lodging properties is about 6,900 feet.

Try to take it easy at the beginning of your vacation. If you go skiing on your first day and do not feel well at the summit, which is at 10,568 feet, there is plenty of good terrain at or below the gondola at 9,080 feet to allow your body to adjust gradually. Also, do not overexert yourself in the first few days.

If you are skiing or riding and notice any of the symptoms mentioned, especially if the symptoms are getting worse, descend to a lower altitude.

Drinking plenty of water also can help stabilize the body, aiding in adjustment to the higher altitude. Also, because we are in a very dry climate, you need to drink more water than you would in a more humid climate.

AMS is not the only health issue to watch out for when vacationing at higher altitudes. There are four characteristics about high altitude that can adversely affect your health:

■ Less oxygen

■ Colder temperatures

■ Drier air

■ Stronger ultraviolet rays

Again, drinking water will help with the lack of oxygen and drier climate. Dry skin is a noticeable result of the dry climate. To prevent dryness or excessive flaking, avoid long hot showers and apply lotion while your skin still is damp.

Additionally, it is important to use sunscreen at high altitudes, even on overcast days. For every 1,000 feet in elevation, UV radiation is increased by 10 percent. Choose a sunscreen that has UVA and UVB protection. Cover all parts of your body that are exposed, including your earlobes. Apply liberally, and reapply as directed by the product.

This may sound obvious, but dress warm. Proper clothing is key to avoiding cold-weather injuries. Avoid wearing cotton; once it gets wet, you will get cold. Dress in layers made of Gore-Tex, down and/or synthetic fabrics. A hat or a helmet also keeps you warm.

If you detect any numbness or a slight burning sensation, or if you see any exposed skin turning white, go inside and warm up. Frostbite, which causes damage to skin and other tissue, has several stages. More serious cases may need medical attention.

Finally, during your Steam­boat vacation you may have noticed that alcohol packs a stronger punch. The effects of alcohol are magnified at altitude, therefore, it is recommended that travelers avoid drinking for the first 48 hours. Consuming alcohol also increases dehydration.

High altitude should not put a damper on your vacation. It is the altitude and cold, dry climate that combine to give Steamboat its trademark Champagne powder. Enjoy your vacation and the snow more by keeping yourself healthy at altitude.

Riley Polumbus is communications specialist at Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at riley.polumbus@yvmc.org.

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