Altitude Sickness Usually Mild
Sue Hubbard, M.D.
With summer vacation season in full swing, many families are traveling. Some are heading out across the U.S., while others are seeking adventure in
I get several calls each year about "acute mountain sickness," which may occur when traveling to altitudes above 5,000 feet, but is typically associated with being in altitudes of 8,000 to 14,000 feet.
To give you a frame of reference,
Fortunately, most people don't have serious problems when traveling to higher altitudes. The human body acclimatizes to higher altitudes, allowing you to function with less oxygen without distressing or debilitating symptoms. Despite that, the body is not functioning as well as it does at sea level, as the air is less dense at higher altitudes, and consequently there's less oxygen available.
The first thing you may notice is a slight increase in respiratory rate, which helps increase oxygen delivery to the lungs but at the same time results in the loss of extra CO2. Some people may also notice an increase in heart rate.
I think most children without underlying medical problems (chronic pulmonary or cardiac problems) seem to actually acclimate better than adults. In some cases, however, you may notice that your child has non-specific symptoms, such as irritability, decreased appetite, headaches, disrupted sleep and occasionally vomiting.
All of these symptoms usually resolve after several days and may be minimized by planning a gradual ascent to higher altitudes. So, driving may be better than flying, although I can remember driving to
For some children and teens who've experienced repetitive episodes of altitude sickness, I've suggested a prescription medication called Diamox to minimize symptoms. I would not recommend this for young children. You should speak with your doctor about the use of this drug, which aids in acclimatization by increasing the excretion of bicarbonate in the kidney, which stimulates the respiratory rate and improves oxygenation.
Some families who are frequently sick when skiing or hiking can also bring portable oxygen to help alleviate symptoms during the first few days they're at higher altitudes.
For most of us, just maintaining hydration and taking the first few days of exercise a little slower than usual is enough for our bodies to acclimate and enjoy the trip!
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