The best remedies for high elevation altitude sickness are the most natural: hydrate, breathe supplemental oxygen-enriched air, and take a pain reliever that thins the blood like salicylic acid (Bayer Asprin).
When we pulled up to Grand Lodge on Peak 7 at 10,000 feet in the Rockies this week, my brother-in-law, who had just flown in from sea level the previous day, began to feel the effects of the altitude.
Altitude sickness can ruin a mountain vacation whether it be summer, winter, or somewhere in between. It happens when the body doesn’t have enough red blood cells to transport enough oxygen through the body in the thin, oxygen-poorer air. The body eventually adjusts and produces more red blood cells, but it may take a few days to acclimate naturally.
Serious athletes often train at altitude because it means they they will have more red blood cells when they compete at lower elevations, and more oxygen equals better muscle performance. By the same logic, less oxygen can lead to the symptoms of altitude sickness: weakness, headache, confusion, malaise, moodiness, shortness of breath.
Luckily, my father is a specialist in high altitude edema and has authored a number of articles on the subject that have been published in highly respected medical journals, so we gave him a call. He recommended my brother-in-law drink lots of water, avoid alcohol, take two Bayer asprin, and rest for a day or two to get adjusted. He also recommended we ask the concierge if there might be oxygen available for adjusting visitors.
I remembered that we had a tank of oxygen available at my wedding for the same reason, and my wedding location was at only 8,000 feet. As it turned out, my great aunt in her 90s who came out from Florida was fine while one of my best friends who grew up in Colorado had to avail herself of the gas. But it worked immediately for her then.
We learned that we could purchase a small canister of 95% oxygen-enriched air for less than $20 at the shop inside the lodge. A couple of hits off of that thing and my brother-in-law felt almost normal again within minutes. A few more hits over the course of the next 24 hours combined with drinking a lot of water has worked wonders.
Salicylic acid, derived from willow bark, is one of the oldest pain relievers humans have known and used. It is usually a safe remedy for reducing pain and inflammation, except for those who might be sensitive to salicylates.