Sundance 2020: How Park City’s altitude might impact your health, and what to do about it
The air up there is pretty thin, so be prepared.
Got a headache? Feel exhausted? Not sleeping well? For most Sundancers, the culprits are maximal partying and minimal rest. But for visitors coming from sea level (hello, New York and L.A.), altitude might be equally responsible. There’s less oxygen in the air at higher elevations, which can result in oxygen deprivation. For help, we spoke with Dr. Michael Kagen, a local concierge physician whose number is on speed-dial with several Park City resorts.
Q: How serious a problem is altitude sickness in Park City?
Dr. K: Although people can start having symptoms at 6,500 feet, Park City’s base is low enough that we only see mild altitude sickness symptoms. The highest resort in Park City (Deer Valley) is at 8,300 feet, so people aren’t sleeping at an altitude that would cause severe altitude sickness.
Q: What are the general symptoms?
Dr. K: We tend to see only mild symptoms here: dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, lack of energy, sleep problems. Severe cases might involve nausea and vomiting. Symptoms generally commence between 12 and 24 hours of arrival, and people start to acclimate within a day or two. Symptoms are generally gone by day three.
Q: Who is most susceptible?
Dr. K: Age, sex and general health don’t seem to make a difference, but people with lung or heart disease should avoid high altitudes. Visitors who live at lower elevations are susceptible, and people who’ve have altitude sickness previously are at a higher risk.
Q: What can visitors do to avoid it?
Dr. K: The biggest thing is giving your body time to adjust. Don’t exert yourself for the first 24 hours. Don’t drink too much alcohol — a glass of wine is fine, but don’t go too hard. And stay hydrated.
Q: When should you seek medical help?
Dr. K: Anytime you are concerned and don’t like the way you feel, speak to your regular doctor. You may think that whatever you’re suffering from has
to do with the altitude, but there may be something else going on.
Q: What is your general treatment?
Dr. K: Acetazolamide (Diamox) and dexamethasone are both used to help the body adjust more quickly. I don’t prescribe either of them a whole lot—mostly before a guest arrives, and at first when they get here. Overall the treatment is patient-specific, and can involve resting, drinking water, supplemental oxygen, or descending to a lower level. It’s very rare that a visitor has to shorten a stay, unless they have a lung or heart condition.
Q: What about visitors having sleep problems?
Dr. K: This is a really common question. People wake up with their heart pounding. First, stay away from respiratory depressants such as alcohol, Barbituates, or tranquilizers — they can be dangerous if you’re low on oxygen. Lower air pressure at higher altitude means you are getting less oxygen, and respiratory depressants will worsen the problem. We often do a sleep assessment to see what is happening.
Q: Overall, what’s your best advice for Sundance-goers who want to stay healthy?
Dr. K: Stay hydrated and avoid strenuous physical activity. And stay hydrated!
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