Q: I am taking my 6-year-old daughter to Colorado next week. We live at sea level, and the ranch is at 9,500 feet. Last year she had headaches, nausea and was ill for two days. Is this altitude sickness? How do I prevent and treat this?
A: Nancy Snyderman, M.D., F.A.C.S: Your daughter’s symptoms do seem to match those of altitude sickness. It is caused in part by the thin air with low oxygen content. Even though this kind of altitude sickness is not often serious or long-lasting, I can understand why you want to prevent it. When you only have a week for vacation, you do not want your daughter to spend a third of that time being sick.
The best preventive method for altitude sickness is a gradual ascent, to give your daughter time to acclimatize to the elevation changes. Depending on where you are going in Colorado, perhaps you can fly into Denver, where the elevation is 5,260 feet, and spend a day or night there before heading up higher. If you cannot arrange that, try to figure out some other way to minimize the abruptness of the ascent, even if it is only giving your daughter a few hours to spend at each increasing level of elevation.
If a gradual ascent just is impossible, then give your daughter some time to rest after arriving at 9,500 feet before she starts horseback riding or other vigorous activities. Failing that, you might consider descending a couple thousand feet at night or for half a day. Descending often relieves the symptoms immediately.
Make sure your daughter drinks lots of water the whole time you are there. Altitude sickness sometimes causes sleeplessness, so it may help to have her try to nap during the day. You may also want to talk with your doctor about a prescription medication called acetazolamide — brand name Diamox. This drug is often helpful in fighting altitude sickness, but there are side effects that may make its use unwarranted in some cases.