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Rocky Mountain High

Altitude sickness could crop up at Olympics

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 6, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- That heady feeling some Olympic athletes and spectators may soon experience might not be from the thrill of victory; it could be a symptom of altitude sickness.

Altitude sickness occurs when the body has trouble adjusting to mountain air, which contains less oxygen. Most problems occur when people who live at sea level fly to ski resorts at 7,000 feet or higher, says Dr. Colin Grissom, a critical care physician for InterMountain Health Care in Salt Lake City. InterMountain, a nonprofit health system, is the official medical service provider for the Games.

There are three types of altitude sickness, Grissom says. The most common is acute mountain sickness (AMS). The other two types are high altitude pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) and high altitude cerebral edema (fluid on the brain). These rarely occur at the kinds of altitudes in and around Salt Lake City, Grissom adds.

"At 7,000 feet, the incidence of AMS is about 10 percent for people who come straight from sea level to sleeping in ski resorts," says Grissom. At 8,000 feet, that number jumps to 20 percent.

Salt Lake City is only about 4,300 feet above sea level. Some Olympic venues, such as Park City, Deer Valley and Utah Olympic Park, are around 7,000 feet at their base, he says.

Symptoms of AMS include headache, disturbed sleep, nausea, decreased appetite, dizziness and a lack of energy, Grissom says.

Faster, shorter breaths are generally not a sign of sickness, but of the body naturally adapting to the altitude, explains Dr. Benjamin Honigman, director of the Colorado Center for Altitude Medicine and Physiology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver.

"Our bodies' adaptive functions accommodate the altitude very well," Honigman says.

Both Honigman and Grissom caution that if you're severely short of breath, especially while at rest, you should seek medical attention. Severe shortness of breath and coughing are signs of pulmonary edema.

The good news about AMS is that it's self-limiting. It generally lasts only a few days, Grissom says: "AMS is uncomfortable and inconvenient, but generally not serious."

The people most likely to get AMS are those who have had altitude sickness before, and those who fly into ski resort areas and exert themselves right away. Grissom says he doesn't expect the altitude to be a problem for the athletes because they train and compete in high altitudes, so they're probably already acclimated to higher elevations.

More than 100,000 spectators are expected in Salt Lake City and the surrounding Olympic venues, according to InterMountain. Besides the altitude, Grissom says he is concerned about the cold. It's been unusually cold this week in Utah, and he hopes spectators come prepared to spend their days outdoors so they don't end up with frost nip or its more serious cousin, frostbite. That means proper footwear, hats, scarves, gloves and dressing in layers. When you start to feel cold, take a break and go inside to warm up.

What To Do

"People should be aware of the potential problems when traveling to high altitude areas," says Dr. Gary Barnas, an associate professor of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. "Once you arrive and start feeling sick, it can really make a dent in your travel plans."

He also recommends that anyone with underlying breathing problems discuss the trip with their doctor first.

Experts suggest adding fluid to your diet because the air is drier in the higher altitudes. In addition, your thirst mechanism doesn't always signal properly in the cold. Take it easy the first day or two to ease your body's adjustment to the altitude.

To learn more about how your body adapts to high altitudes and the symptoms of altitude illness, read this from the National Outdoor Leadership School or this from the Medical College of Wisconsin.

SOURCES: Interviews with Colin Grissom, M.D., critical care physician, InterMountain Health Care, Salt Lake City; Gary Barnas, M.D., associate professor, medicine, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; Benjamin Honigman, M.D., professor and head, division of emergency medicine, and director, Colorado Center for Altitude Medicine and Physiology, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver
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