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Denver, CO

New to Denver? Beware of altitude sickness, summer sun

Posted by 
David Heitz
David Heitz
Brandon Messner/Unsplash

They call Denver the Mile-High City. That’s because its altitude is 5,280 feet, or a mile high.

Yet despite the thin air, it never occurred to me before I moved here from Illinois that it might take time for my body to adjust to the change in altitude. But it did. I felt very unwell for the first two or three weeks that I lived in Denver.

Denver Jewish Health explains the phenomenon of altitude sickness on its website. “Since National Jewish Health is located in the ‘Mile-High City’ of Denver, its elevation can cause some patients, who come from out of state, to experience altitude sickness,” the health provider explains.

“Altitude sickness occurs when the body reacts poorly to sudden travel to high altitudes, where the air is ‘thinner’, and the body gets less oxygen in each breath. About one in five people traveling to the mountains of Colorado suffer altitude sickness.”

From splitting headaches to feeling winded

The symptoms are uncomfortable and exhausting. “The most common symptom is a headache,” according to National Jewish Health. “Difficulty sleeping, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, and vomiting are other common symptoms. Symptoms usually develop in the first 12 hours after reaching altitude and subside in one to three days.”

It is hard to tell who will get altitude sickness. “Even aerobically fit people may suffer,” according to National Jewish Health. “It is more likely among people who have come from sea level and among younger people, especially children.

“It is not dangerous in the vast majority of cases among people traveling to Colorado mountains. People with underlying respiratory or cardiovascular diseases should consult a doctor before coming to high altitudes as these conditions can make it difficult to adjust to altitude.”

In rare cases, altitude sickness can become severe. “In extremely rare occasions people can develop more severe symptoms, called high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE),” according to National Jewish Health. “They are characterized by extreme fatigue, weakness, and severe cough or confusion, drowsiness, and difficulty walking. People suffering such symptoms should consult a doctor.”

Denver’s summer sun is blazing

Remember that being a mile high means you’re that much closer to the big ball of fire in the sky. The sun in Denver can be blazing hot in summer, although it is a dry heat. Athletes come to train in Colorado for a reason. The thin air and hot sun make your workout even more challenging.

There are things you can do to prevent altitude sickness. The city of Denver offers these tips:

Drink water. You need to replenish the fluids you lose living at higher altitudes. This is especially true during hot summer days when the sun is blazing. It may be common sense, but some people get preoccupied and don’t remember to regularly hydrate.

Avoid alcohol. Alcohol dehydrates you and worsens altitude sickness. The air already is dry in higher elevations.

Eat high-potassium foods. Also load up on carbohydrates. “Foods such as broccoli, bananas, avocado, cantaloupe, celery, greens, bran, chocolate, granola, dates, dried fruit, potatoes and tomatoes will help you replenish electrolytes by balancing salt intake,” according to the city website.

Monitor your workouts. Be sure not to overexert yourself when you first move to Denver. Exercising in higher elevations taxes the body more than low-altitude workouts. But after a few weeks, you won’t even notice the effects of higher elevation.

Be ready for that blazing sun. I moved to Denver in August of 2018. It was in the 90s almost every day for the first couple of months I lived here. I was struck by the power of the bright sun, too. My first impression of Denver was clogged freeways, smog, warmth, and mountains. In other words, Denver could have been Los Angeles as far as I was concerned.

Dress in layers. Denver weather can be wholly unpredictable at times. Just last week we had a snow squall warning in Denver – in May. The week before that it hit 80 degrees. Always dress in layers you can remove. Wear a T-shirt under a collared shirt, for example. Also, carry a light jacket or keep one in the car for when Denver temperatures dip at night.

In Denver, the temperature drops rapidly once the sun sets. It is not unusual for Denver’s temperatures to have a 50-degree range in one day. Winter comes late to the Front Range (you can still expect balmy temperatures in December) and hangs around into spring. Snow in May is common.

But for the most part, the weather in Denver is gorgeous. Many people move to the higher altitude because the air is dry. This can be beneficial for people suffering from certain health conditions.

For everyone else, taking it easy when you first move to Denver and letting your body adjust to the altitude is a small price to pay for living in one of America’s loveliest states.