Altitude sickness?
May 6, 2017 8:21 AM   Subscribe

I arrived in Denver yesterday for a conference. I live in Maryland, so it's quite a change in altitude. I was fine through pretty much the entire day. However, once it got to around 9PM, I suddenly felt terrible. I would describe it as hung-over: a pounding headache and an upset stomach. I ended up throwing up. At first I thought it might be food poisoning, but looking at the symptoms for Altitude Sickness that also seems possible.

So far today, I feel more or less fine. I'm trying to put some food back in my body and to drink lots of water. I've read that alcohol can cause the symptoms, and I did have a beer yesterday with my lunch.

If this is altitude sickness, then will my body acclimate? This conference is a good chance to network, talk with others, and meet people in the field - and that typically involves at least a little drinking. The main meat of the conference doesn't start until Monday, so I have a little bit of time.

If I feel fine now, then should I see a doctor? I know that symptoms of worse altitude sickness include confusion and not being able to walk a straight line, but I'm not experiencing those.
posted by codacorolla to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Don't do the alcohol. How is that a requirement? Anyway, it does sound like altitude. If it's your second day, it may be almost over. Many shops (ask your host or hotel) will sell small oxygen cylinders, which should give you quick relief.
posted by JimN2TAW at 8:27 AM on May 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

Colorado is also really dry, too. I'm voting a combination of altitude and dehydration. Stay away from alcohol and drink a lot of water.
posted by something something at 8:29 AM on May 6, 2017 [8 favorites]

I experienced a 24 hour bug a few weeks ago that was very similar to what you're describing... and, you were on a plane, the next best place after a day care center to contract bugs. Glad you're feeling better...
posted by HuronBob at 8:33 AM on May 6, 2017

Yeah, no drinking. It's not worth missing more of your conference because you're camped out in the bathroom dry heaving every 20m and trying to hold the pieces of your head together. Ibuprofen can be helpful.
posted by notquitemaryann at 8:35 AM on May 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

The effect of alcohol is heightened (hehe) at high elevations. Even if you didn't feel drunker, I wouldn't be surprised if your body didn't tolerated it as well as it does at sea level. I'm not a drinker and when I'm in situations where I would feel out of place without a drink I drink soda water with lime . You could also try pursed lip breathing to increase your oxygenation.
posted by pintapicasso at 8:36 AM on May 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hi there! I live about an hour away and about 1,000 feet above you.

The advice above is spot on. Drink lots of water (seriously, it's really dry here) and stay away from alcohol. You should also take it easy and don't overexert yourself -- every thousand feet of elevation makes you exert more to do normal basic functions like walking and breathing. Also try to get a full night's sleep. If you usually exercise, skip a few days. It takes a couple of days to acclimate.

On the bright side, you will feel like a million-billion bucks when you get back to MD. You'll find yourself running around and extra-energized because it feels so good at sea level.
posted by mochapickle at 8:43 AM on May 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

Carbs and hydration, carbs and hydration.
posted by 445supermag at 9:10 AM on May 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

This happened to me at a conference in Las Vegas years ago. I was walking from one hotel to another with a friend and all of a sudden I felt like I was coming down with the flu, dizzy, weak, and nauseated. We went into the hotel and I got a big glass of water, and later some soup, and after that I was ok. Looking back it was a combination of dehydration and altitude. I am from NJ.
posted by mermayd at 9:27 AM on May 6, 2017

You might need more than just water. You probably do not actually have Altitude Sickness, which is a really serious condition that can be deadly. But well before you get that, just being at altitude, your body compensates for the thin air by dumping wastes via the kidneys that you would normally breathe out. With pumping more fluids through your kidneys to clean your blood, other things also get removed, such as vital electrolytes.

I rarely drink Gatorade. I do grab it during heat waves when it is above a hundred degrees and when hiking at altitude.

No, you won't acclimate. It takes something like six weeks for the body to acclimate and it involves increasing your lung mass and your red blood cell count. You might be able to up your red blood cell count a bit if you are there a week. I think they take a few days to manufacture. You could support that process by getting enough iron and B vitamins.

But, mostly, you need to avoid alcohol, limit caffeine, get enough fluids and get enough electrolytes. Gatorade is not your only option. You can also eat things like bananas and salty snacks. But Gatorade is kind of the easy, obvious solution.
posted by Michele in California at 9:43 AM on May 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

I live even higher than Denver and when I've been away at lower elevation for awhile, it usually takes about 2 to 3 days for me to get back to normal. The dry climate can fool you since you won't be sweating, you don't feel the need to take in water. Between the wind and the low humidity, the atmosphere will suck the water right out of you pretty quick!
posted by jabo at 9:58 AM on May 6, 2017

I got a clanging headache and minor stomach upset for about 16 hours in Denver and Santa Fe just last week (New Yorker here.) I absolutely attributed it to dry weather and altitude as I have no allergies, didn't experience symptoms of migraine, pms, hangover, food poisoning, or anything else like that.

I mega hydrated, took it kinda easy on physical activity, ate smaller, more frequent meals, and only had one drink (sorry, not missing a margarita in Santa Fe!) and I did feel better as the trip went on.

I think you can be adversely affected by the altitude without succumbing to full-fledged altitude sickness and I think you can expect relief if you hydrate and take it easy. Don't get plastered, take a nice shower or bath, don't eat anything crazy, and get lots of rest.
posted by kapers at 10:09 AM on May 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

And to answer your question, I don't think you need to see a dr as you're already improving.
posted by kapers at 10:12 AM on May 6, 2017

Given Denver's altitude, altitude sickness is not super common, but you might have had a bit of it. Dehydration might have been just as big a factor. The air inside planes is dry and if you were busy and forgot to drink anything before that beer you might have been pretty dehydrated. It can definitely cause headaches and nausea too.

You can acclimatize to that height in a day or two. If you're climbing in the Andes or Himalaya, it can take weeks to do so, but not at 5200 feet.

Hydration and electrolytes will be helpful. Go easy on the booze but a light beer or something won't be the end of you. You're through the worst of it.
posted by thenormshow at 10:43 AM on May 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Nthing everyone on the dehydration and avoiding alcohol (both because it can exacerbate dehydration and because it does hit you harder at altitude), but also: be careful of sun exposure. Even if you're not out hiking, you're still high enough in Denver that the sun will hit you harder than you're used to, and faster than you realize. If you were walking around town throughout the day you could have overdone it without noticing until later.

In my experience it only takes two or three days to adjust to moderate altitude, even if you're not fully acclimated. You should be fine by Monday.

(That said, I've never had it bad enough that I threw up, so the bug explanations above may be correct.)
posted by postcommunism at 1:18 PM on May 6, 2017

It sounds like you have mild altitude sickness. If you take it easy for the rest of the weekend, drink a lot of water and eat a lot of small meals, you'll probably feel better by Monday. You won't completely acclimate though, because that takes way longer. Denver is so dry that it's easy to get really dehydrated, which can also make you feel pretty sick.

It's highly unlikely that you will get one of the more severe versions of altitude sickness, but if you are out of breath while you are at rest or if you are unable to walk heel-to-toe in a straight line, then go see a doctor immediately.
posted by colfax at 1:39 PM on May 6, 2017

I have had mild altitude sickness in Colorado Springs and ended up in the hospital getting IV fluids. The doctor said my preexisting condition of a an abnormally fast resting heart rate made it worse and that I could have avoided a trip to the ER by hydrating with electrolyte drinks. After a few days I felt fine, as long as I avoided walking up hills, and walking up stairs: doing either of those made me nearly pass out/throw up. It took me a good month of being at that altitude before I could walk up an incline or walk up stairs without feeling like I was dying.
posted by ilovewinter at 2:09 PM on May 6, 2017

Just anecdata, but when I have felt very sick from altitude it hit me mostly at night. So yeah, your experience feeling it hit at 9pm rings true for me. This was over twice the altitude of Denver, though.
posted by imalaowai at 4:59 PM on May 6, 2017

I cannot hang with alcohol in Denver, myself. Had the same thing you described happen.
posted by pazazygeek at 8:21 PM on May 7, 2017

Also, if you know you react this way to altitude now, you can request drugs ahead of your next trip that will help combat the sickness. My brother-in-law has done that the last couple times he's visited and it's made a world of difference. He still stays away from alcohol when visiting, though.
posted by LKWorking at 7:59 AM on May 8, 2017

Just chiming in to say this - "You probably do not actually have Altitude Sickness, which is a really serious condition that can be deadly" - isn't exactly true. Acute Mountain Sickness, or AMS, generally fits what the OP is describing - headache, nausea, trouble sleeping. It's generally not a big deal, goes away in a day or two, and can be helped quite a bit by proper hydration. High Altitude Pulmonary Edema or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HAPE, HACE) involve fluid filling your lungs or skull, respectively, and are life-threatening and need to be treated with immediate decent to lower altitude, among other things. The OP doesn't have either of those, based on the symptoms the OP described.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:11 AM on May 8, 2017

Given Denver's altitude, altitude sickness is not super common

This is simply not true, unless there's some rigidly specific definition of altitude sickness you're referring to. I mean, it's not as bad as Mexico City or La Paz, but travelling from sea level to Denver regularly messes people up. Alcohol exacerbates this. I make this trip a couple times a year, and despite having grown up at a higher altitude than anywhere in the Denver metro, I usually spend my first day in town with a headache, exhausted and pounding water.

Don't sweat it, make sure you get plenty of fluids and sleep, stay away from booze. You'll be fine tomorrow.
posted by aspersioncast at 3:41 PM on May 8, 2017

As an update, and for future askers, the advice about staying more hydrated than I typically do, and eating carby snacks were spot on. I took it easy on drinking at first, but tried beers incrementally throughout the week. By the end I was able to have a few beers a day (I'd feel bad if I missed Denver's brewery scene) with absolutely no problem, but was definitely feeling it at about 2x my normal rate. I always have problems with my ears popping on flights, but the trip back was BRUTAL. I'm not sure if it had something to do with having been at high altitude for a bit, but I really felt like I was going to throw up when the plane was landing. Back to normal now, but maybe worth considering if you're like me, and have troubles with pressurizing / depressurizing.
posted by codacorolla at 5:42 PM on May 14, 2017

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