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How to Survive in High Altitude Cities

By Judy Wilson

With altitude often comes spectacular natural beauty, but those mountains can also bring risks to the visitors and residents who occupy high altitude cities. The air in high altitude cities is thinner, with lower oxygen content, and dryer than it is at lower elevations. These issues can profoundly affect the body and how it functions. High altitude can bring unpleasant symptoms like dizziness, headaches, nausea, tiredness, nosebleeds, insomnia and shortness of breath, and these can proportionally worsen as you go to increasingly high altitudes. By taking some simple precautions, you can fully enjoy living in or visiting high altitude cities.

Rest, if you are just arriving in a high altitude city from lower elevation, and allow yourself time to acclimate to higher altitude. Over time, your body should adapt to the high altitude, such that you can resume all your usual activities and will not need added rest, but much of this depends on your age and whether you have preexisting medical conditions that could affect your body’s ability to adapt.

Avoid exercise or exertion on the first day after you arrive at high altitude. You should be able to gradually increase your activity level after that, particularly if you are already healthy and active. However, exercise’s effects can be greater in high altitude cities, as compared to lower altitudes.

Pay attention to how you are breathing in high altitude cities. Because less oxygen is in the air, you might experience shortness of breath, wheezing or coughing. If you do, move to a lower altitude as quickly as possible, rest and seek medical help if needed.

Drink enough pure water, such as spring water, because drinking water is the best way to acclimate your body to the altitude. In many high altitude cities, the air is dry and dehydration is more likely. You need at least 1/2 oz. of water per pound of your weight per day; for example, if you weigh 140 lbs., you need at least 70 oz. of water per day. You might need to drink as much as two or three times this amount at high altitude, especially on days with extremely low humidity, so listen to your body’s cues.

Drink less or no alcohol at high altitude, because alcohol dehydrates your body even more in dry conditions and makes you more prone to altitude sickness. Alcohol also has stronger effects at high altitude. Ideally, do not drink alcohol for at least the first few days after you arrive in a high altitude city.

Apply a safe sunscreen, and wear sunglasses and a hat that shields your face and upper body from the sun’s strong rays. Also wear a shirt, long pants or jacket, depending in the season, to protect your skin from the sun. These sun-related precautions are necessary in high altitude cities because the thin atmosphere filters less of the sun's harmful rays.

Apply extra lip balm and skin lotion as needed, because your skin will be dryer at high altitude.

Dress in layers, because the temperature can fluctuate dramatically and quickly in high altitude cities. Prepare accordingly if the city has wintry weather conditions.

Monitor your body’s responses to any medications you are taking in high altitude cities. Some drugs’ effects and potencies can change at altitude. Discuss this issue with your prescribing doctor or practitioner.

Travel with someone else when you are at especially high altitudes, and monitor each other for any signs of altitude sickness, such as wheezing, coughing, chest pain or shortness of breath.

Tip

If you are just arriving in a high altitude city from a lower altitude location, preferably stay in a spot with an altitude below 7,000 feet for the first day. Carry a filled water bottle with you at all times, and sip from it throughout the day to stay hydrated.

Warnings

Know the warning signs of high altitude sickness, such as shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing and chest pain. If you or someone else is showing signs of altitude sickness, seek medical help and move to lower altitude as quickly as possible.

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