Dr. Jim Little, Jr., is a Jackson Hole native and local physician at St. John's Health & Urgent Care Clinic. Here, Dr. Little answers your questions about high altitude health issues and shares tips on the prevention and treatment of Jackson Hole's most common health concerns .
How Can I Prepare for High-Altitude Conditions in Jackson Hole?
Most people will adapt relatively well to the altitude on the valley floor in Jackson Hole, which is around 6,300 feet above sea level. The people who tend to have the biggest trouble often have preexisting medical problems, especially obstructive sleep apnea, high blood pressure, heart failure, heart disease, pulmonary hypertension or chronic lung conditions. Even healthy visitors can occasionally have issues with the altitude during activity.
I see several patients every week who were given the “all clear” by their providers back home and then experienced worsening of their usually well-controlled medical problems when they came to Jackson Hole. If you have a significant preexisting medical condition, seek advice from a qualified medical provider who is experienced in altitude medicine. There are medications that can be prescribed in advance to help reduce your risk of getting sick.
What Does Altitude Sickness Feel Like?
The most common adverse reaction we see around here is acute mountain sickness. The symptoms are described as being similar to a hangover: headache, nausea, fatigue, and sometimes a little shortness of breath. Generally, those symptoms are worse when you combine higher elevations and exertion. It’s not unusual that we’ll have someone who flies here in the early morning and then goes straight to the top of the mountain to ski. If you feel that you might be suffering from acute mountain sickness, descend to the valley floor, stay hydrated, get some rest, and most of the symptoms will pass. If you are having trouble adapting to Jackson Hole, you shouldn’t go to Yellowstone — most of the Yellowstone plateau is significantly higher than the elevation in Jackson Hole.
How Can I Protect Myself From Altitude Sickness?
- Stay well hydrated. Due to our dry climate here, it’s very easy to get dehydrated.
- Limit your alcohol intake. Alcohol compounds the effect of the altitude so if you are having difficulties adapting to it, all of the symptoms of altitude sickness can be made worse with alcohol while you are adapting.
- Make sure you get plenty of rest and transition gradually from the valley floor to higher elevations. Don’t try and tackle a steep trail or climb a mountain on your first day or two. You’ll want to adapt and build up to higher elevations and physical activity until your body adjusts. There is less oxygen in the air at this elevation, so your aerobic capacity is decreased. It’s not altitude sickness — it’s just that there’s less oxygen you are breathing in. Also, the air here is very dry and irritating to your throat and lungs, so be mindful of that. People who are older or have underlying medical problems will take longer to adapt, so if you push too hard you could end up with altitude sickness in addition to the other problems. Be aware of this and adjust your activity accordingly.
• Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Carry a water bottle and/or Camelback when hiking, fishing, rafting and general sightseeing.
• Always have sunscreen on you and with you. The same goes for lip balm — a balm with an SPF factor is even better!
• Just wick it. For great layers with that all-important wicking factor, check out our hometown brand, Stio, at 10 East Broadway. The locals swear by it!
• Be Prepared in the Backcountry learn more at backcountryzero.com
What Should I Do If I’m Still Not Feeling Well?
It’s definitely good to see a doctor who can evaluate and verify that you’re not having more serious problems. Unrelated cardiac problems or other medical issues have symptoms that can definitely overlap with altitude sickness.
St. John's Health Urgent Care Clinic
St. John's Health Urgent Care Convenient and comprehensive walk-in care clinic for mild to moderate illness, minor wounds and the treatment of bone, joint, and other injuries.
Other Health Risks To Be Aware Of While Traveling In Jackson Hole
One thing we see often is significant sunburn, as the higher elevation here means that there is less atmosphere between you and the sun — therefore you are much more susceptible to sunburn.
Those people who go out at sea level and sit on the beach and get a nice tan will find they get a much more severe burn here. And in the winter when it’s a nice sun-shiny, bluebird day, you’re getting sun reflection off the snow as well and can actually get a pretty significant sunburn on your lips, nose, ears, and face.
You need to wear sunblock on the sun-exposed areas of your body. An SPF 15 or higher is adequate and keep reapplying as day goes on, especially if you are on the water as it can wash off.
You’ll want to protect your vision from ultraviolet light, so a good pair of sunglasses is recommended.
Dehydration is a very common. Be aware that caffeine — which is also found in some sodas in addition to coffee — definitely tends to dehydrate so make sure you drink plenty of water; it’s the best thing to drink to hydrate. Water has no chemicals, no preservatives. And we’ve got good, clean water here.
Most of the other problems we see are related to sports injuries. Wearing helmets when skiing, mountain biking, riding horses, or snowboarding may protect you from serious injury.
You’ll want to wear adequate layers, too, so you are prepared for the varying conditions and drops in temperature. In the summer you’ll maybe need just one layer on but as it gets cooler you’ll need to add an additional one. Wear layers that are easy to take off or put on to adjust to the temperatures.
Temps tend to drop at least 20 degrees when the sun goes down so even though its nice and warm in the summer during the day, it can be quite chilly at night especially if you are in the mountains.
The best layers are things like wool or synthetic fibers that will wick moisture away from your body so that sweat doesn’t build up and create cold conditions — if you’re wet, you’re going to be cold.