Coming to the Rocky Mountains is an exciting experience and a destination for millions of people each year. With all the excitement and the endless things to see it is easy to forget or neglect how your body will react to altitude. Especially if it is your first time coming to Denver or anywhere else in Colorado for that matter. But you need to take altitude into consideration. It affects everyone differently but can ruin a trip and can be dangerous.

I remember when the military first moved me to Colorado. More specifically Colorado Springs at over 6,000 feet. I was full of excitement and could not wait to go out and explore the Rocky Mountains. The first couple days I noticed I consistently had cotton mouth and headaches. After the first couple days I got back to my workout routine of running and lifting weights. I am not the best runner, but I was confused when I was out of breath going around the block. Even a couple sets of benching had me exhausted and out of breath. I was so confused and how I had become so out of shape so quickly. A couple weeks later I went on a hike to above tree line. Right after hitting tree line I got dizzy, nauseous, and disoriented. That entire time I was feeling the affects of altitude and altitude sickness. I had no idea altitude had that much power over me. It is important to understand the affects of altitude and how to handle them. Something I wish I knew before moving to Colorado.

What is altitude sickness

Before talking about altitude sickness prevention and handling it is important to understand what altitude sickness is. Altitude sickness is a group of hangover like symptoms that occur when ascending to a higher elevation too quickly. For example, flying from a low elevation to Denver.

Places where air pressure is higher, like at sea level, have more oxygen. Which makes sense because the more air there is the more oxygen there is. As you increase altitude air pressure drops. You will notice it in more immediate forms like your ears popping when you are on a plane or driving up a mountain. The thing that makes altitude so dangerous is that air pressure does not decrease linearly with altitude, instead it is an exponential relationship. For example, at sea level there is 14.7 pounds per square inch absolute (psia). At 5,000 feet, which is bellow Denver’s altitude, there is 11.8 psia. That means there is 20% less oxygen for your body to use. At 14,000 feet there is 43% less oxygen. If your body is not used to operating with less oxygen it is important prepare for the change.

There are three kinds of altitude sickness. The first is acute mountain sickness (AMS) which is the most common and benign form. This will give you hangover like symptoms. The second type is hight altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). This is more sever and involves liquid filling your lungs. The third and final kind is high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) which is the most severe kind. This final type involves fluid build up in the brain resulting in coma and possibly death.

Now, I have never heard of anyone dying or even developing the more severe forms of altitude sickness from just visiting Denver. But I will never say never. Denver is a very popular area, and I cannot find any articles about HAPE or HACE happening in Denver. HAPE, although rare, can develop as low as 6,000 feet and Denver sits at 5,280 feet (on average). If you do venture outside of Denver just be aware of the more serious forms. A Penn woman spent a day acclimating in Denver then at a higher altitude before dying from HAPE. HAPE and HACE tend are more common, but still very rare, at altitudes starting at 9,000 to 10,000 feet. Reports from ski resorts located at above 9,000 feet say that one out of every 5,000 to 10,000 people will develop HAPE. So even at these higher altitudes it is still relatively rare.

Everyone’s body handles altitude differently. Some people will get altitude sickness under 5,000 feet, others will not get it until 10,000 feet, and others will go straight to skiing at 12,000 feet and show no symptoms.

What are altitude sickness symptoms

Altitude sickness symptoms will occur within hours of arrival at higher altitude. There are a variety of symptoms, but early symptoms closely resemble a hangover. It is important to understand the symptoms and affects of altitude so you can catch early warning signs and react. Do not be like me on my first time in the Rockies and blindly ignore the warning signs.

  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sleepiness or sleeping difficulty
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Rapid breathing or shortness of breath
  • Headache
  • Dehydration

These are the common symptoms associated with the milder acute mountain sickness. These symptoms do not require medical attention but do require monitoring. The more severe forms of altitude sickness all start with these symptoms. The more serious forms, HAPE and HACE, have the following symptoms:

  • extreme fatigue
  • respiratory failure
  • cerebral edema
  • coma
  • death

Like mentioned earlier, everyone is different and generally you will not experience most acute mountain sickness symptoms. But you will feel the affects of altitude. Like mentioned in my intro, regardless of who you are you will feel fatigued faster. You will get exhausted quicker when trying to run or hike your usual distance. Easy workouts will have a noticeable difference. It is also important to watch your alcohol consumption. The thinner atmosphere means you feel the affects of alcohol harder. Keep this in mind if you drive somewhere for a drink or two.

What is Denver’s altitude

Denver is situated at an altitude of 5,280 feet. This is why it is called the mile high city; it is a mile above sea level. This is important to remember especially when driving to Denver. Driving from the east you pass nothing but corn fields. If it were not for some about to explode water bottles in your car, you would probably have no idea you were a mile above sea level. A mile can have a noticeable physical affect. Altitude sickness can start as low as 4,800 feet and it generally takes 6,000 feet for HAPE symptoms to start. Like mentioned above, regardless of if you feel symptoms you should still limit your physical activity and drinking.

Some of the surrounding altitudes of attractions:

  • Boulder: 5,328 feet
  • Red Rock Amphitheater: 6,450 feet
  • Idaho Springs: 7,526 feet
  • Estes Park: 7,522 feet
  • Denver International Airport: 5,430 feet

Can you get altitude sickness in Denver

Altitude sickness can happen anywhere above 4,800 feet, which just about all of Colorado is above. Denver sits at 5,280 feet which means acute mountain sickness symptoms can set it. If you do develop symptoms they will occur within hours of arriving and last anywhere from 12 hours to 4 days. Bellow will be a list of proactive and reactive measures to take. So yes, you can get acute mountain sickness in Denver. HAPE and HACE is a different story though. If you strictly stay in Denver there is almost zero chance of getting HAPE or HACE. I have never heard of it nor can I find any evidence of it, but I will never say never.

How the Denver altitude will affect you

Like just mentioned you may feel some of the symptoms of acute mountain sickness. What you are almost guaranteed to feel is the fatigue that comes with higher altitude. Since there is 20% less oxygen you need to take that into consideration when exerting yourself. For the first couple days, and in my opinion weeks, do not plan anything too extreme. Keep hikes calm and take rests. Also make sure to drink plenty of water. You will feel dehydrate when staying at higher altitudes. At elevation it is said that you need to drink an extra liter to liter and a half than what you would normally require. If you go on hikes, make sure to pack extra water. If you feel dehydrated, cotton mouth, or dark urine it is a sign that you need to drink more. If you do not you could start to experience more of the hangover like symptoms that come with altitude sickness.

How to prevent altitude sickness

  • Get in shape: Getting used to fatigue and exerting yourself will prepare you for the excess fatigue you will feel at higher altitude. The transition will be a lot smoother. Preparing can be as simple as going for jogs. If you plan on doing a lot of activities out here, then step it up to running hills and using a weighted vest. Anything to improve your endurance.
  • Take trips to higher altitudes: If you can take some hikes to higher altitude spots in your area. Gaining 1,000 feet elevation and hanging out up there before coming can help your body mentally and physically prepare for higher altitudes.
  • Drink lots of water: This is the most common piece of advice. Once at the higher altitude make sure to drink lots of water. The higher elevation dehydrates you and dehydration can accelerate the symptoms of altitude sickness.
  • Limit alcohol consumption: This is least favorite piece of advice, especially with all the amazing breweries. And honestly, the reasons to not drink alcohol are more valid for altitudes higher than Denver’s. The reason to not drink is because alcohol consumption dehydrates you, leads to impaired breathing, and amplify symptoms of altitude sickness. Experts recommend waiting 48 hours to acclimate before drinking alcohol and to not drink before bed.
  • Medication: Ibuprofen can be taken to prevent or stop some altitude sickness symptoms. Unfortunately, there is not a lot over the counter to help altitude sickness. If you plan on going to higher altitudes than Denver, you can ask your doctor for some prescription medicine. There are multiple options, and each come with unique side effects. That is something you should consult with your doctor about.

What to do if you get altitude sickness in Denver

If you get altitude sickness you need to monitor your symptoms. Symptoms should last between 12 hours and 4 days. If your symptoms worsen or last longer than you should see a doctor. The most important thing to do is to not go higher in altitude. Gaining altitude will worsen the symptoms and could lead to something more severe. To relieve symptoms, take medication and drink water. If needed go down to a lower altitude. Lowering your altitude will always help with altitude sickness.