Altitude Sickness: Family Awareness

Baby watches skiers from gondola

“Hi.  Mrs. Walsh? This is Katie from Daycare.  I don’t want to alarm you, but I wanted you to know your baby hasn’t eaten anything today and hardly napped.  She is still smiling, but she seems a bit groggy.”

“I’m near the base, I’ll be right there.”

It was Day One of our family ski trip at nearly 7,000 feet in the US Rockies.  By Day Two, my baby still wasn’t eating, she had been up all night (highly unusual for her), and she was generally not her usual self.   I realized my baby was suffering from a mild case of altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness (“AMS”).

I was battling the effects of altitude myself.  Headache, loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping.  My husband and our older children were breezing through the days with no concern, as they had in the past.  But the baby and I were definitely having issues.  I’ve experienced mild and severe cases of altitude sickness in the past, so I kept a close eye on our symptoms.

I stayed with my baby at the mountain’s base, let her take a few naps and gave her sips of water throughout the day.  By Day Three she finally slept through the night and devoured her dinner.  It took four days for my symptoms to disappear.

Tired baby in high altitude

Altitude Sickness occurs when you cannot get enough oxygen from the air at high altitudes.  It can be dangerous and it is smart to take extra care when hiking, camping or visiting high altitudes. (Source: WebMD).

Some say altitude sickness may occur at altitudes 8,000 feet or higher.  For me, I feel the impact at altitudes as low as 6,000 feet above sea level.  Each person is different and experts do not know why some people are more prone to altitude sickness than others.

The International Society for Mountain Medicine says this:  “Anyone who goes to altitude can get AMS. It is primarily related to individual physiology (genetics) and the rate of ascent; there is no significant effect of age, gender, physical fitness, or previous altitude experience.”

According to WebMD, “in the United States, more than 20% of people visiting the western mountains get [mild altitude sickness]”.

The key is to be aware of your family’s situation and apprised of what to do if you or your family shows symptoms of altitude sickness, even in mild cases and especially in severe cases.

Ski School. Be alert for symptoms with family and friends.

Below are a few observations from my past experiences and research online to identify and minimize the effects of altitude.

1.  Be aware of your and your family’s behavior.   Monitor your and your family’s eating and sleeping patterns, energy level and general behavior the first several days in high altitude.  Take extra caution if symptoms appear and take immediate action if symptoms seem severe.

2.  Know the symptoms.  WebMD lists the following symptoms of altitude sickness:

  • A headache, which is usually throbbing. It gets worse during the night and when you wake up.
  • Not feeling like eating.
  • Feeling sick to your stomach. You may vomit.
  • Feeling weak and lazy. In severe cases, you do not have the energy to eat, dress yourself, or do anything.
  • Waking up during the night and not sleeping well.
  • Feeling dizzy.

See link here for symptoms and signs of severe altitude sickness.

3.  Drink lots of water and Rest.  From the moment I arrive in high altitude, I drink water by the bottle-full.  I make my children drink water in the morning, day and night.  For my baby, I make sure she gets frequent sips of water all day and when she wakes up at night.  I try to take it easy during the day (low activity, nap if I can) and I get to bed very early.

4.  Know what to do if you or your family has altitude sickness.  In mild cases, your body may acclimate in a few days with rest, water, over the counter headache medicine and no alcohol.  (For me, even one glass of beer or wine made even mild symptoms much worse.)  In more severe cases, you may need to immediately move to lower altitude, get oxygen treatment or other medical treatments. (See WebMD article here for more.)

5.  Sleep at lower altitudes.  If you’ll be hiking or skiing at higher altitudes, sleep at the base or an altitude lower than your daily activities.

6. Remember the golden rules from the International Society for Mountain Medicine:

I. If you feel unwell at altitude, it is altitude illness until proven otherwise.

II.  Never ascend with symptoms of AMS.

III. If you are getting worse (or have HACE: High Altitude Cerebral Edema, or HAPE: High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, both severe cases of altitude sickness), go down at once.  Click here for summary of symptoms and signs of severe altitude sickness.

Baby on the move in high altitude

Please click on the following links for much more thorough descriptions of altitude sickness, symptoms, treatment and other risks:

WebMD – Altitude Sickness (2 page article on altitude sickness)

Altitude.org (A good portion of the site deals with very high altitudes and more severe cases, but the general article discusses symptoms/treatments of both mild and severe cases.)

International Society for Mountain Medicine – Mountain Medicine Information Center (includes a Non-Physician Altitude Tutorial and a report on Children at Altitude)

**I AM NOT AN EXPERT IN MEDICINE, ALTITUDE SCIENCES OR THE SORT.  As a result of my personal experiences with altitude sickness, however, I have observed symptoms of mild and severe altitude sickness, visited pulmonary and high-altitude doctors, and attempt to keep fresh my knowledge of AMS and related studies.   Please see the links above for more information on altitude sickness and please always consult a doctor if you have any concerns.**

Have you or your family experienced altitude sickness?  Please share in the comments below.

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