Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Altitude Sickness

When you go to the ocean the altitude level is equal to zero (0). When you travel up a mountain the altitude level increases and the air pressure decreases. At places like the Grand Canyon the altitude goes up to over 6,000 feet elevation, and in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado it can peak to over 14,000 feet elevation. As the elevation increases, the altitude is higher and the air pressure is lower. The lower the air pressure, the lower the number of oxygen molecules available to breathe. This is also known as thin air.

For people with Sickle Cell Disease, less oxygen means SICKNESS.

My altitude sickness symptoms begin around 3,000 feet. It starts with a headache, feeling tired, and dizziness. If I don’t get out of the mountains, then all of these symptoms get worse. At 4,000 – 5,000 feet, I begin to get confused and agitated. I have shortness of breath, my spleen, hands and feet begin to swell, and my head aches with no relief. At 6,000 feet, I descend into needing hospitalization. I throw-up, more headaches, dizziness, lips and palms turn white, and my body slowly collapses into a full Sickle Cell crisis.

How do I know so much? I found out about altitude sickness by accident. After taking a few vacations to the Grand Canyon and Utah I experienced altitude sickness first hand, the hard way. I travelled to these high places, got sick, and learned my lesson. I discovered that I can not go higher than 4,400 feet elevation EVER (without an oxygen tank). In winter, because oxygen is thinner by nature, I can not go above 3,000 feet elevation.

People with Sickle Cell disease have physical limitations, as well as geographic limitations. I know that I can’t visit the Swiss Alps, unless I have an oxygen tank strapped to my back and a mask flowing cool, clean oxygen into my lungs. That's ok with me. I am informed about my limitations and I can accept them. Information is power.

Now take a minute to inhale, now exhale. Enjoy each and every breath you have because it's very precious.


  1. Anonymous10:07 AM

    does this include people who are diagnosed as AS?

  2. People with AS sickle cell trait may feel symptoms. Headache, vomiting or pain are not uncommon.

  3. I've known all my life that oxygen was important to people who have SCA, but after a spur of the moment trip to the mountains of NC (from sea level where I was born and raised) I was painfully reminded of the lack of oxygen at higher altitudes. I really did'nt know that I would be affected as I had lived (camped) for 4 days and 3 nights on top of a mountain in Colorado (La Mesa Verde National Park). I was 20 years old at the time and other than severe fatigue with exertion I had no other symptoms that I noticed (God was and continues to be most gracious). So here I am 33 years later realizing I should not have taken that trip without first discussing it with my doctor. My pain was localized on the inside of my knee and attempted to spread so I treated myself (which I do not recommend), reminded myself to breathe deeply, and drink plenty of water, as I and my friend got the heck out of dodge the next day.
    Although the countryside was beautiful and I plan/hope to return and enjoy my stay, I will definitely inform my Dr first and come up with a wise plan of action.

    1. I am glad that you were ok in Colorado. I avoid Colorado altogether. I am considering getting a prescription for oxygen from my doctor because I love to travel. Oxygen and water is so important to our health. Keep breathing deep, drink that water and enjoy the life God has given you.