I was born in Denver but grew up in Georgia, much closer to sea level. I’ve been back to Colorado a handful of times, and without fail, I get walloped by the altitude.
If I stay in town, my complaints are limited to sleepiness and sluggishness. But venturing up into the mountains can intensify things. On my last visit, when my wife and I spent a few days with friends in the mountain town of Frisco, I ended the trip feeling shaky, sore, and exhausted—the kinds of sensations I’d normally associate with the flu. I recovered quickly once we were back in Denver. It’s possible that I caught a bug, but equally likely, I just had a mild case of altitude sickness.
The air really is thinner in the mountains. (That means 25 percent less protection from the sun—and, according to Denver’s website, golf balls that sail 10 percent farther!) If you’re not used to the lower levels of oxygen and air pressure, the change in altitude can bring unexpected discomfort.
Symptoms of altitude sickness tend to be mild. They can include unusual weariness, a headache, nausea, or trouble sleeping. It’s hard to say whether it’s something that will affect you, although people visiting from lower altitudes tend to be more likely to feel the effects, according to Dr. Todd Bull, medical director for Denver’s UCHealth Comprehensive Lung and Breathing Program. (People with heart and lung issues might want to be on their guard, too.)
Bull says people in Colorado commonly experience some level of altitude sickness, even on brief alpine jaunts like mine. But they often don’t recognize the symptoms for what they are, so it’s hard to say how frequently it happens.
Is altitude sickness cause for serious concern? Likely not, if you come prepared. It can develop into a condition known as acute mountain sickness, which can be life-threatening. But generally, the symptoms stay mild and don’t last long.
There’s plenty you can do to mitigate the lows that can come with traveling in higher climes. :
Stay hydrated. Colorado’s low humidity makes for a pleasant stay, but also a drier one. Plan to drink twice as much water as you would at home.
Don’t push yourself too hard when exercising. And be sure to get plenty of rest.
Eat potassium-rich foods. They’ll help you replenish electrolytes and balance salt intake. Think bananas, greens, bran, and avocado.
Pack for sunshine … but bring lots of layers. This may sound contradictory, but it’ll keep you comfortable in the changing climate. Denver sees more than 300 days of sunshine per year, which calls for sunglasses, sunscreen, and lip balm. But the warm temperatures can quickly dip after sundown, especially during the fall. Layers will help you prepare for any weather.
Go easy on alcohol and sedative medications. It’s not your imagination: The cocktails do pack more of a punch than at lower altitudes. Certain medications, like benzodiazepines, can also worsen altitude sickness.
Have you experienced altitude sickness? Share your story, and tips for ducking discomfort, in the comments.