So you’re heading to the slopes for some winter fun – skiing/boarding, stunning scenery and mountain air. But for some, the high altitude can result in varying degrees of mountain sickness.
Here we will take you through the causes of altitude sickness as well as prevention and what to do if you are experiencing symptoms. If in any doubt, consult your doctor.
What causes altitude sickness?
Altitude / mountain sickness is the body’s reaction to climbing to a high altitude too quickly. Many notice that the air is thinner in the mountains and that’s caused by a decrease in atmospheric pressure. This means that the body has to work harder to take in the normal amounts of oxygen required.
Altitude sickness is most likely to affect you if you are travelling above 2500m (8000ft) though it can affect some people from around 1500m.
Most cases of altitude sickness are mild. Altitude sickness symptoms can include a headache, nausea and dizziness. Poor sleep is also very common. If symptoms are more severe, you are advised to seek medical attention.
Who suffers from altitude sickness?
Altitude sickness can affect anyone who travels at high altitude. There is no one ‘type’ of person who will be effected. No one is immune to it, even those that have been unaffected previously.
How to prevent altitude sickness
For some altitude sickness is a normal part of a winter sports holiday but there are some measures you can take to help prevent it.
1. Choose your resort carefully – Altitude sickness prevention can come into play before your ski holiday is even booked.
Choosing the right resort could be the difference between getting mountain sickness and not. Staying in a satellite resort can be a great way to reduce your chances of altitude sickness.
Firstly, it will provide a lower altitude base. Poor sleep is often a symptom of altitude sickness so this could make a big difference to the way you feel over the course of your ski holiday.
Secondly, a satellite resort could give you a better chance of acclimatisation. Ascending gradually can prevent mountain sickness so you can arrive at your accommodation and allow your body to get used to the mid-altitude and then gradually ski higher up the mountain over the course of your week’s holiday.
RECOMMENDED RESORT: stay in Morillon at 700m and ski in the Grand Massif up to 2,480m.
2. Ease yourself in – it’s tempting to arrive at your ski resort and head straight up the mountain and onto the slopes. But skiing or boarding is hard work at the best of times, let alone if your body is adjusting to the high altitude.
Make sure you take it gently at first and allow your body time to adjust while you build up your activity.
3. Stay hydrated – drink plenty of water for the duration of your mountain stay. In order to get the 4-6 litres of water you need per day, it’s a good idea to take it with you onto the slopes in a day sack.
Keeping your calorie intake up is also important so it’s worth having some snacks with you as well. Alcohol can dehydrate you so if you are experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness, it’s best to avoid altogether.
Altitude sickness treatment
The best cure for altitude sickness is taking altitude out of the equation although we understand that’s not ideal on a winter sports holiday.
It is advised that you don’t climb any higher than when you first experienced symptoms. So if you start getting symptoms at 2000m, don’t go any higher until your symptoms start to subside.
If your symptoms persist, it is best to rest and take it easy. Far better to take a day to adjust and then enjoy the rest of your ski holiday than keep skiing and make yourself feel worse.
Altitude sickness medication - In some cases, medication can help relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness. Over the counter altitude sickness medications are widely available from the pharmacy.
If you think you may require medication, it is best to purchase in the UK prior to your ski trip so you can do your research and talk through your options with your pharmacist. Otherwise, altitude sickness tablets should be available in resort.
If you need any further advice about altitude sickness, it is best to consult your GP before travelling to the mountains. Further information can also be obtained from the NHS Direct Altitude Sickness page.