I’m heading to Colorado for vacation and I keep hearing tales of high-altitude sickness. Dr. Stuart Harris, a mountaineer who heads the wilderness medicine division at Mass. General Hospital, answered my questions. Here are his edited comments.
What’s the best elevation to start at when you’re traveling up from sea level?
Spending a night or two at the altitude of Denver or Boulder, about 5,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level, will help you acclimate without any effects of altitude sickness, which include headaches, dizziness, confusion, and shortness of breath. From there, you can rise to 8,000 feet and then to 10,000 or 11,000 feet. It generally takes your body about three to five days to adjust to a new elevation.
Which remedies are most effective for alleviating symptoms?
Going to a lower altitude is the best remedy. Acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or another over-the-counter pain reliever can be used to treat headaches, but it may not work in severe cases.
Can any medications help speed the acclimation process?
You can get a prescription for acetazolamide (Diamox). It may cause dizziness or drowsiness and heightens your skin’s sensitivity to sunlight, so sunscreen is a must.