A Skier's Guide to
Acute Mountain Sickness

Skiers (and snowboarders) are at risk of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) when they enter the mountain environment. Most skiers  will at most experience a periodic mild headache. For a small minority, AMS can rapidly progress into High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) (i.e. fluid in the lungs) and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), which are life threatening conditions. This page presents information that can help skiers understand and deal with the symptoms of AMS. Enjoy your vacation more by preventing AMS and being able to help your friends in distress.

At 8,000 feet (2438 meters), there is 1/4 less oxygen per breath. At 14,000 feet (4266 meters) there is 1/3 less. There are many resorts with peak elevations in this range of altitudes. Skiers should be especially aware when at resorts that have base elevations above 8,000 feet. Note that although commercial airline flights range in altitude from 20,000 to 40,000 feet, the cabins are pressurized to reduce the apparent altitude to between 5,400 and 7,000  feet.

AMS is caused by changes in chemical balances as the body adapts to less oxygen in each breath. Lower atmospheric pressure means that there are fewer oxygen molecules in each breath. The body attempts to breath harder to get more oxygen, but not enough to make up the difference. The balance between gasses in the lungs and in the blood changes. The distribution of potassium and sodium within the body also changes. These imbalances change the distribution of water between blood and the body tissues. When these changes happen slowly, symptoms can be avoided. The faster that these changes occur and the higher one goes, the more susceptible one is. Some people get AMS easier than others. 

Skiers (as opposed to hikers and climbers) increase their chances of getting AMS by using lifts to rapidly ascend in altitude and then performing intense exercise. Other common contributing factors are being out of shape, smoking, drinking alcohol and getting little rest. Skiers avoid having AMS progress into HAPE/HACE by not spending a lot of time at altitude and returning to lower elevations at night.  

Most skiers do not recognize that the headaches are symptoms of AMS. This chart can help you tell the difference between cold, flu and acute mountain sickness (information adapted from a presentation by Steve Dike, PharmD).

Symptom Common Cold Influenza AMS
Sudden onset, temperature>102-104 Degrees Fahrenheit Absent
Fatigue, weakness & exhaustion Common Extreme Common
Nausea Rare Common Prominent; vomiting indicates HAPE
Headache Mild or absent Prominent Prominent
Muscular pain or joint pain Mild or absent Prominent Mild or absent
Nasal discharge Common Prominent Absent
Nasal congestion Common Less Common Absent
Sneezing Common Less Less Common
Sore Throat Common Common Rare
Cough Less common, usually non-productive Common, persistent and non-productive Persistent or productive cough indicates HAPE
Ocular(eye) Watery eyes Pain on motion of eyes, burning, light sensitivity Dry eyes
Duration 5-10 days One week 1-4 days
Other Symptoms     Shortness of breath,
rapid heartbeat, sleep disturbance.
Complications Sinus congestion, earache Bronchitis, pneumonia Bummer vacation experience, HAPE, HACE

A common AMS induced sleep disturbance is called periodic breathing (several deep breaths followed by 15 seconds of no breathing).

Here are some things skiers can do to help prevent AMS:

Here are some of the things that skiers can do to deal with AMS symptoms:

More links on AMS:

Copyright 2001
Rusty Carr 
All Rights Reserved

NOTE: The Rusty is not a medical professional. this is information is not intended for medical diagnosis or treatment. 
please consult your physician instead of a lawyer.