American Osteopathic Association

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Ski Bunnies and Hikers Beware!

Oct. 30, 2014                           

Preparation is key to avoiding altitude sickness on mountain vacations

(SEATTLE)— Nearly 40 million tourists visit recreation areas above 7,800 feet in the Western United States each year.  People from lower altitudes traveling to these areas are at increased risk of high altitude-related illness, so preparation is key, says Melissa Tabor, DO, an AOA board-certified physician in family and osteopathic manipulative medicine.

Also an assistant professor of sports medicine and an assistant professor of osteopathic principles and practice for Nova Southeastern University College of Osteopathic Medicine (NSU-COM) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Dr. Tabor presented on “Environmental Illness,” speaking to the types, dangers and prevention of altitude-related sickness, at American Osteopathic Association’s OMED 2014, the Osteopathic Medical Conference & Exposition in Seattle.

“No matter how great of an athlete you are, if you are coming from sea level or lower altitudes to a higher altitude area, you need to prepare,” said Dr. Tabor, who is also a team physician at NSU.

Not everyone gets altitude sickness, but those under 50, especially women and younger males, are more likely to develop it. There are three types of altitude-related illnesses:  acute mountain sickness (AMS), high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), and high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE).

Because altitude sickness is caused by swelling in the brain, signs to watch for include headache plus one of the other following symptoms:  nausea/vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, sleep disturbances or poor eating. Untreated, altitude sickness can lead to confusion, inability to walk, shortness of breath, coughing blood and even death.  The treatment is simple: descend to a lower altitude.

To avoid developing any of these altitude-related illnesses, Dr. Tabor offers the following tips:

Acclimate.  If time permits, plan to arrive to the high altitude destination at least one to two weeks ahead of time to acclimate before starting any strenuous activity.  Even a day or two can help.

Plan ahead.  Most mountain resorts and even city governments in mountain towns have websites that you can check for guidelines on ascent and decent, especially if hiking. They also offer recommendations on clothing and equipment.

Ascend slowly.  The Wilderness Medical Society has evidence-based guidelines for the prevention and treatment of altitude-related illnesses, including guidelines on how high to ascend each day.

Listen to your body.  Each body responds differently to altitude. If feeling light headed or have a headache, don’t ascend any higher.  If the symptoms don’t get better in two to four hours, then descend to get immediate relief.

Increase hydration.  Properly hydrated bodies respond better when operating in high altitudes. Dr. Tabor says that people should drink before they are thirsty.

Use a portable hyperbaric chamber. Spending time in a chamber saturates a person’s circulatory system with oxygen resulting in increased oxygen to tissues, which allows a body to better adjust to high altitude.  Some mountain resorts rent these for as little as $25/day. 

Talk to a doctor. Some physicians will prescribe preventative medicines, depending on travel location altitude and past patient history.

About the American Osteopathic Association

The American Osteopathic Association (AOA) proudly represents its professional family of more than 104,000 osteopathic physicians (DOs) and osteopathic medical students; promotes public health; encourages scientific research; serves as the primary certifying body for DOs; and is the accrediting agency for osteopathic medical schools. More information on DOs/osteopathic medicine can be found at


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