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Preparing for High Altitude Travel and Recreation

Lawrence Bryson, M.D. gives professional advice on how to prepare for high altitude travel and sports.

Not only trekkers, skiers, and mountain climbers, but even ordinary sightseers are at risk for high altitude (or mountain) sickness. Today's travelers can arrive at high altitudes without having adequate time for their bodies to acclimate. Many ski resorts and mountain cities, for example, can be reached directly by jet planes which abruptly deposit travelers a mile or more above sea level. The result can be mountain sickness, which is caused by a reduction in the amount of oxygen reaching the brain and muscles because of the lower atmospheric pressure at high elevations.

To prevent mountain sickness, take enough time - two or three days - for your body to become accustomed to the higher altitude. Don't plan vigorous activities right away. If you will be flying directly to a high-altitude destination, your doctor might prescribe acetazolamide. However, some people should not take this drug, so medical approval is important.

Mountain sickness is more common at elevations above 10,000 feet, though some people begin to show symptoms at elevations at low as 5,000 feet. Symptoms range from mild discomfort - headache, nausea, sleep difficulties, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, and fatigue - to more acute disorders - confusion, reduced urine output, inability to sleep, intense headache, marked breathing difficulties, delirium, loss of memory, and unconsciousness. Extreme cases of mountain sickness can be quite serious and even fatal.

Trekkers and mountain climbers should allow their bodies to adjust at an altitude of 6,000-8,000 feet for a few days before going higher. You may climb higher during the day, but return to sleep at an elevation no more than 1,000 feet higher than the night before.

In addition to the risk of mountain sickness, high altitude can expose you to intense sun, cold and wind, and dry air. Be sure to protect against all these hazards.

Excerpted, with permission, from "The Travel Health Clinic Pocket Guide To Healthy Travel," by Lawrence Bryson, M.D. To order, contact Silvercat Press, 888-299-9119/619-299-6774/, U.S. $13.95 (plus tax in California)

Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.

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