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Altitude Illness: Into Thin Air

Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park is located at 7,100 feet above sea level. A few precautions can prevent altitude illness.

Although altitude illness, also known as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), does not typically occur below 8,000 feet, some people experience symptoms at lower altitudes. An individual’s susceptibility to the illness is genetic, not related to personal fitness, although people older than 50 are somewhat less likely to experience it. There is no test for AMS, but a person’s previous experience is a guide. The symptoms quickly reverse when the person moves to lower elevations.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published information about altitude illness as part of a chapter on self-treatable conditions for travelers. Differences in temperature, humidity, ultraviolet radiation and air pressure can affect health at high altitudes, but the lowered intake of oxygen, called hypoxia, is the greatest concern. A standard measurement of blood oxygen, from 20.9 at sea level to 6.9 at the top of Mt. Everest, measures 16.0 at 7,000 feet.

Day trips to higher elevations are less likely to trigger altitude illness than sleeping at those heights. A quarter of visitors who overnight above 8,000 feet in Colorado experience AMS, which resembles a hangover. Typical symptoms include headaches and sometimes fatigue, nausea and vomiting. More severe conditions, High-Altitude Cerebral Edema and High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema, are rare.

The CDC says that acetazolamide, sold as Diamox and other brands, can help visitors acclimate faster if the ascent must happen quickly. The center recommends avoiding alcohol and strenuous exercise for the first two days at higher elevations.

Medical personnel at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park are experienced and equipped to assist people who experience AMS. Visitors typically acclimate quickly. Knowing what to expect can help a person take precautions and manage the symptoms when they appear.

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