Colorado has elevations of 3,317 to 14,439 feet above sea level. Most of the cities along the Front Range are around 5,000 feet above sea level. The mountain towns can be as high as 10,152. There is less oxygen in the air as you get higher in elevation and this places stress on your body. In addition to lower oxygen levels, the air is drier and the sun is more intense as you get higher up. You are more easily dehydrated and burn more easily as well.

Here are a few things that you should know about being at high altitudes:

  • Visitors from lower elevations may feel a range of symptoms from the altitude, even at elevations as low as 5,000.
  • High Altitude Sickness can occur even with those people that are generally physically fit.
  • High Altitude Sickness can effect people of any age.
  • Effects of altitude may occur with a rapid gain in altitude, such as a car going over a mountain pass, a ski lift taking you to te top of the mountain or a tourist arriving by plane from lower altitudes.
  • The negatives effects of high altitude generally diminish with time spent at higher altitude, say over a few days.
  • Physical exertion, such as hiking or other exercise, may exacerbate the symptoms of High Altitude Sickness
  • Even people that live in Colorado year-round may experience symptoms when visiting the mountains.
  • Alcohol can increase the symptoms of High Altitude Sickness
  • You do not have to be high on a mountain slope to experience symptoms.

High Altitude Sickness should not be taken lightly. It can be severe and even deadly. Watch for symptoms in yourself and those around you.

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The symptoms of High Altitude Sickness

With High Altitude Sickness, the body is experiencing Hypoxia, a condition in which the body is not receiving adequate oxygen. Some of the early symptoms of High Altitude Sickness include:

  • headache
  • shortness of breath
  • loss of appetite
  • light headedness
  • nausea
  • weakness and tiredness
  • inability to sleep
  • dizziness
  • clumsiness

More severe symptoms include:

  • disorientation
  • tremors
  • vomiting
  • ataxia (staggering, loss of balance)
  • fainting, loss of conciousness
  • blue lips and fingertips

What to do for treating and avoiding High Altitude Sickness

If you are just arriving in Colorado from lower elevations, or you live at a lower elevation and are visiting the mountains, give yourself a day or two before doing any exercise if at all possible. You need to give your body time to acclimate. Stay hydrated by drinking adequate amounts of water and don't drink alcohol. Drinking dehydrates you and makes other symptoms worse.

Watch for symptoms. If they are mild, try just taking it easy for a couple hours. Stay hydrated, stay in the shade and refrain from exercise. Breathe deeply and be sure to exhale thoroughly.

If you are hiking or doing other exercise and think you might be suffering from the symptoms, do not continue going any higher. If you are with a group, get someone to head down the mountain with you and to stay with you in the case the symptoms worsen. Do not leave a person that is exhibiting the symptoms alone by themselves. If you or someone is disoriented or dizzy, find a shady place to rest before heading down the trail. Sip water, do not gulp it down and breathe deeply. 

If the symptoms are bad enough, call emergency resources. Many locations in Colorado are out of reach of cell phones. If this is the case, see if you can get a couple of group members or other hikers to get back to a location with cell service to call for help.

High Altitude Sickness can be very serious. Take precautions and be aware of the symptoms.