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Elevations in Summit County range from 9,000 to 12,000 feet which means the air is thinner and contains less oxygen than at lower elevations. Visitors to Summit County from states where elevations are much lower may experience altitude illness while traveling from low to higher altitudes in one day. The symptoms of altitude illness are similar to the flu and include headache, nausea and difficulty sleeping. The signs of a severe case of altitude illness are shortness of breath, cough, congestion and difficulty with the thought process.
If you feel you are suffering from the symptoms of altitude illness, you should see a physician immediately. More severe cases can be treated with oxygen therapy and the patient may need to be transported to a lower elevation.
Altitude illness can affect anyone, regardless of age or health.
If at all possible, it is suggested you spend an extra day and night in Denver, which has an elevation of 5,280 feet. This will give your body a chance to adjust to the change in altitude a step at a time.
Avoid alcohol, sleeping pills and narcotic pain medicine during your first days here. Alcohol and drugs will escalate the symptoms of altitude illness. Drink plenty of fluids and try to acclimate to the altitude. It is also important to remember the chance for severe sunburn increases at higher elevations. Again, this is because of decreased oxygen. To protect yourself, always use sunscreen and wear sunglasses.
If you have been diagnosed as having symptoms of altitude illness, you should know there are two kinds of altitude illness:
Acute Mountain Sickness
This is a mild form of altitude illness which affects 30 to 40 percent of the visitors to Summit County. The symptoms are headache, nausea, vomiting and trouble sleeping. Acute mountain sickness resembles the flu and most people experience symptoms within the first three days after arrival. By the fourth day, the symptoms usually disappear.
For moderate to severe symptoms, a physician's care is necessary. After evaluation and treatment, the physician likely will advise you to avoid alcohol, sleeping pills, narcotics and heavy exercise. Mild exercise is acceptable, and you should drink plenty of fluids. If none of the treatment therapies relieve the symptoms, you will be advised to go to a lower elevation.
High Altitude Pulmonary Edema
This is the more severe of the two illnesses. Its symptoms are similar to pneumonia, with congestion and difficulty breathing. These symptoms will increase in severity by the third night of the illness. If you have been diagnosed with High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, you will be treated with oxygen therapy and transported to a lower elevation. Upon returning home, symptoms will go away and normal health will return.
The physicians at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center have years of experience in the evaluation and treatment of altitude illness. Our emergency medical facilities are open 24 hours a day.
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