High Altitude Sickness or Dehydration?

Fawnskin Elevation: Below High Alititude Sickness Level?

Do you get headaches, have trouble breathing, or find that you are unable to sleep after you arrive to your high altitude mountain vacation home or rental? If so, you are not alone.

Many people get sick at high altitudes and so these symptoms arise frequently in the mountains. The symptoms may indicate that you suffer from mountain sickness, which is more commonly known as high altitude sickness.

High altitude sickness is not really an illness; it is a problem that arises due to the lack of oxygen. I often joke about high altitude oxygen deprivation being behind some of the silly (and stupid) activities exhibited by visitors but I am only half joking because there really is something behind my sarcastic observations.

As people climb into a higher altitude the air becomes thinner. In other words, there is less oxygen is in the atmosphere. So, when you inhale you take in less oxygen into the lungs and the amount of oxygen in your blood declines.

Hypoxia is the actual term for when there is a deficiency of oxygen reaching the body tissues.

Unlucky visitors to the mountain resorts can begin to experience symptoms of high altitude sickness, or mountain sickness, usually within 48 hours of arriving at high altitude. Basically, when you visit a higher altitude you may notice more symptoms at elevations over 7,000 to 8,000 feet.

Some parts of the Big Bear Valley are under 7,000 while if you hit the slopes, or Onyx Summit, you’ll be at altitudes over 8,000 feet. However, people who suffer from heart disease or lung disease may suffer from symptoms at lower altitudes.

When I first moved to the mountains, I spent only a couple of days a week here and that was not enough time to acclimate. So, when I tried playing doubles volleyball competitively–I had a hard time catching my breath.

Mountain dwelling locals have a couple of important rules of thumb for their visitors:
*take it easy for a day or two after arriving to the mountains
*increase your intake of water

People sometimes are impacted by dehydration at high altitudes and so it is not always mountain sickness that affects them. Most people don’t realize that when they get into high altitudes they exhale and perspire more than at sea level. This means that people lose more water, estimates are that this can be up to a quart or more per day.

Higher altitudes have lower air pressure which helps accelerate the evaporation of moisture from the surface of the skin and from the lungs and high altitude areas are lower in humidity which also contributes to faster evaporation.

So, everyone needs to increase their water intake at higher elevations.

Signs of possible high altitude dehydration:
*Lack of perspiration
*Shortness of breath

Some of the symptoms of dehydration are similar to those of high altitude sickness so it is best to error on the side of caution since mountain sickness can be experienced by anyone but is usually more severe in people who have heart or lung problems.

In fact, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends the mountain visitors increase altitude slowly. For instance, the association recommends that climbers and hikers take two days to reach 8,000 feet, and then another day for each 1,000 to 2,000 higher feet.

High altitude sickness or mountain sickness symptoms include:
*headaches, breathlessness, fatigue
* nausea or vomiting
* inability to sleep
* swelling of the face, hands and feet

Over here in Fawnskin we are at an elevation of 6,750 in the business district and so most of our visitors and part-time residents find that they acclimatize to the area without a problem. However, the valley elevations change and those with symptoms might want to drop altitude for a day prior to heading up again if they are suffering from symptoms.

We recently had guests who had to turn around and head home–their symptoms included headaches and vomiting. Not very fun for them.

American Heart Association recommendations for minimizing high altitude sickness:
* Avoid strenuous activity for the first day or two.
* Drink extra fluids.
* Avoid alcohol or drink in moderation as its effect is magnified at high altitude.
* Heart or lung patients, consult your doctor about medication that can help prevent or treat altitude sickness.

If you have a heart or lung condition, consult your physician before going to high altitude. He or she can tell you whether your condition will let your body adjust to the lower oxygen in the atmosphere.

Finally, if you are a visitor, don’t dismiss symptoms as silly. Be aware that physiological changes increase heart rates and breathing rates and that the danger at very high altitudes are that body fluids can leak into the brain or lungs causing cerebral edema or pulmonary edema respectively.

High altitude sickness can be serious so if you are in doubt, call 911. In addition you can get help at the emergency room of Bear Valley Hospital or Summit Urgent Care.

Bear Valley Community Hospital
(909) 866-6501
41870 Garstin Drive
Big Bear Lake, CA 92315

Summit Urgent Care
(909) 878-3696
41949 Big Bear Blvd
Big Bear Lake, CA 92315

For more online tips about high altitude sickness visit Familydoctor.org. Have you or your visitors experienced mountain sickness? If so, take a minute to share how you dealt with it below.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008 and is filed under Mountain Lake Resort, Small Town Living.

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7 Responses to “High Altitude Sickness or Dehydration?

  • 1
    Binary Blonde
    January 22nd, 2008 18:33

    This subject really scares me as I have asthma and sometimes have trouble breathing at sea level, let alone high altitudes. Oddly enough, though, when I visited Big Bear last year (Jan. 2007), we went hiking all over and I had very little problems. I did have to stop to catch my breath every so often, but other than that I was fine. Do you think it was because I only stayed one night and altitude sickness strikes at day 2 or 3?

    Also, thanks for the info about hydration – I will keep that in mind for my trek to Machu Picchu in May.

  • 2
    January 23rd, 2008 10:36

    There are medictions they can give you at the hospital for altitude sickness. My advice to anyone is not to try to treat these things yourself if you are having problems. It is best to be seen by a professional…better to be safe than sorry.

    For my asthma problems, I find it easier to breathe at altitude where it is a drier environment, than down below when it is humid.

  • 3
    GG (Gossip Girl)
    January 24th, 2008 06:33

    @Binary: I am sure you will be letting us know about your big trip in May–at least I hope so! The problem up here has not been so much a problem with asthma (something I face periodically) but the actual oxygen content. It is fatiguing and requires slowing down a bit but breath has not been the issue–just like Cricket said, the dry air is easier to deal with which is why a ton of people used to head to the desert if they suffered from asthma–we have dry air–a plus. Hard on the skin but ultimately better than sea air and smog.
    @Cricket: Agreed, you should always get professional help for problems at high altitude which is why I included two resources for visitors.

  • 4
    January 28th, 2008 13:29

    Even coming up to just over a mile here in the Denver area can be exhausting for “low landers,” especially for the elderly. So taking it easy, keeping hydrated and keeping the alcohol consumption low is always advised. And don’t forget the sunscreen. You burn more easily at higher elevations, too.

  • 5
    GG (Gossip Girl)
    February 1st, 2008 07:53

    @Anne_Marie: Thanks for the additional tip. I was amazed when I headed to a higher altitude (10,000-12,000 feet) because I was so fit in comparison to others who lived at lower altitudes. I’ve never experienced it myself but run into visitors all the time that do.

  • 6
    April 13th, 2010 17:00

    I am 59 yrs old and have been under the weather the last few days. No snow jokes here. I live down the hill and have been in BB Lake for 3 1/2 weeks. I have a temp job here and I walk around alot. It just occurred to me it may be altitude sickness.
    So I type in this and BB Lake on the net. Up comes this great article from the Fawnskin Flyer. My symptoms are exact. And I ran out of water two days ago-stuck in my RV. Never knew dihydration was related. Just got some water and will be drinking enough to feel better over night. If not better, will head to BB Hosp in the morning. Did not see author name but thanks for a great article. David

  • 7
    GG (Gossip Girl)
    April 13th, 2010 20:54

    Thanks for the note David. Hope you are feeling better and am glad that you found the article. I am always amused at the way people get to the Fawnskin Flyer and hope to see you reading and commenting again!