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Sharp Health News

What is altitude sickness?

Feb. 8, 2018

What is altitude sickness?

The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, begin tomorrow. While some teams, including the USA Bobsled team, trained locally at the Chula Vista Elite Training Center (formerly the U.S. Olympic Training Center), many athletes prepared for this year’s games by training in higher elevations at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

Pyeongchang has an average elevation of 2,300 feet and Colorado Springs sits at nearly 6,035 feet in elevation. With most of us living close to or at sea level here in San Diego, why go to higher elevations to exercise?

“Many people who live at sea level and follow a generally fit, healthy lifestyle are often surprised to find out how difficult it is to follow their normal exercise regimens when doing so at a higher elevation,” explains Dr. Lynn Welling, chief medical officer and emergency physician at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. “The reason exercise is more difficult at higher elevation is a lack of oxygen.”

To prepare for this year’s games, athletes need to be acclimated to higher elevation so they can increase their performance ability, thus bettering chances at that sought-after gold medal.

“When training at higher altitudes, like in Colorado, our Olympians aim to produce extra red blood cells,” says Dr. Welling. “It’s suggested this boost in red blood cells enhances one’s physiology, which in turn can boost muscle performance.”

While some of us may think we’re Olympic-worthy skiers and snowboarders, altitude sickness is a common side effect of exercising at higher elevation. It can be a serious problem for some spending a weekend on the slopes just a couple hours away.

“Altitude sickness typically happens when a person exercises at a higher elevation or hikes to a higher elevation too fast,” says Dr. Welling. “When we travel to a place at higher altitudes than we’re used to, our bodies need time to adjust to the change in pressure.”

There are three types of altitude sickness:

  • Acute mountain sickness (AMS) — mildest form; most common
  • High-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) — buildup of fluid in the lungs; can be life-threatening
  • High-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) — most severe form that results in fluid in the brain; requires immediate medical attention

Signs and symptoms of altitude sickness include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue

“Symptoms of altitude sickness will usually begin 12 to 24 hours of arriving in a higher elevation,” explains Dr. Welling. “To help prevent or lower the risk of developing altitude sickness, acclimatize yourself to the change in elevation before partaking in your favorite sport or physical exercise.”

If you’re planning on traveling to higher elevation, and develop certain symptoms associated with altitude sickness, please seek medical care.

For the news media: To talk with Dr. Lynn Welling about altitude sickness for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at

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