Altitude Sickness and Kids

At this time of the year, families across the country (and world) are taking vacations. They head to the beach, the mountains, to the lakes & the deserts.  In the United States in particular, many east coasters head west to see our National Parks, our majestic mountain ranges, and our still-wild frontier.  The effects of moderate to high altitude on children should be considered when planning your family trip to the mountain ranges of the west.

At the summit of Mt. Sneffles (Telluride ski trails in the background)

I recall quite distinctly my first trip to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  We flew into Denver (from PA) and drove immediately up to meet a friend at Estes Park, camping on BLM land in RMNP.  Sleep was tough to come by that first night. As I later realized, the 8,000 foot change in altitude (from sea level to RMNP) in less than 24 hours was not an example of good planning.  We should have spent the first night in Denver (around 5,000 feet) and then taken the trip north.  We didn’t.

One symptom of altitude sickness is difficulty sleeping, others are headache and nausea.  Water helped to minimize my headache and I woke up in the morning ready to get started despite a restless night of sleep (another symptom).  We hiked into the Monastery, a one hour hike down to some great sport climbing.  We carried water, climbing gear, rope, & food.  The hike in was time consuming and a bit strenuous with our gear. Activity/exertion can bring on altitude sickness symptoms and as the day of climbing wore on I found myself with a headache, some nausea and a bit of breathlessness as my body tried to adjust to the change in oxygen and altitude.  By the time we hiked out, our friend (a Denver resident) was carrying my pack and I was stopping every few feet to throw up on the side of the trail.  It was not the best start to our two week vacation.

Looking back, I know all of the things we did wrong or could have done differently and I’m glad that we had this experience so that we would remember what not to do for our next trip.  I’ve found that I’m susceptible to altitude sickness (apparently if you get it once you are likely to get it again under similar circumstances). Example: When we hiked a 14er later in the trip, (Mt. Sneffles) near Telluride/Ouray, I found myself acting confused/irrational (I ran down the mountain at a pretty fast and unsafe pace).

So what are the symptoms of altitude sickness and how can you prevent it?  What altitudes are safe for children and at what ages?  Here are some of the things I’ve found with the relevant sources linked for more information.

Symptoms:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Restless Sleep
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Tired/Fatigue
  • Not hungry/little to no appetite

Factors that increase likelihood and onset of altitude sickness:

  • Dehydration
  • Faster you climb/ascend altitudes, more likely you’ll have symptoms
  • Live at sea level
  • Have had it before

Things to decrease likelihood/onset of altitude sickness:

  • Stay hydrated/drink lots of fluids
  • Sleep at lower altitudes
  • Ascend slowly (2,000 feet per day)
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Eat regularly, particularly meals high in carbs

Link for above: NIH/NCBI

Young children are unable to communicate their symptoms and many of the symptoms (lack of sleep or appetite for instance) are typical issues for young children without altitude sickness.  Because of the difficulty in understanding a young child’s symptoms, many sources recommend that children under the age of 1 should not be taken to high altitude locations (locations above 8000 feet).  Children under 3 should ascend extremely slowly and should be monitored closely for signs of altitude sickness.   There are many types/degrees of severity with regard to altitude sickness.  Become familiar with what to look for and begin descent immediately if the symptoms are severe (carrying the child so as to minimize their exertion).

  • Children can be taken to 8000 feet but should ascend past that height gradually.
  • Children who can not communicate their symptoms should be monitored closely and/or not be taken to altitudes above 3000 meters.
  • Children under 1 should not be taken to high altitudes (above 3000 meters).

General information from Wilderness Medical Society.

Studies of people at moderate altitudes (1890 – 2910 meters) indicate that altitude sickness can occur at those moderate heights so it is important to note that just driving your car to the top of Pikes Peak or any number of mountain locations can cause some level of altitude sickness in you and/or your child.  Know the symptoms and consider that children can’t (or won’t) communicate that they aren’t feeling well.  Keep them hydrated and fed, and be sure to descend (when possible) to avoid more serious symptoms.  While this post discusses primarily the symptoms of mild altitude sickness, there are many degrees of severity and variations of altitude sickness.  Click here to read more about the different types of symptoms and severity of sickness.  Here’s a research article about Acute Mountain Sickness and Pre-verbal children (for your reading enjoyment).