Human Computer Interaction Consortium

Altitude Sickness

HCIC 2004 Winter Workshop > Altitude Sickness


High Altitude and Health

This information will explain high altitude and its affect on your health. Most people will not be affected; but for those who are, this information compiled by the medical teams of Summit Medical Center, will be helpful and encouraging. It is important to note, however, that if you experience prolonged unexplained health discomforts, a physician should be consulted immediately.

Elevations in our area range from 9,000 to 12,000 feet, which means the air is thinner and contains less oxygen than at lower elevations. Visitors from states where elevations are much lower, or even at sea level, may experience altitude illness while traveling from lower to higher altitudes in one day. The symptoms of altitude illness are similar to the flu and include headache, nausea, and difficulty sleeping. The signs of a severe case of altitude illness are shortness of breath, coughing, congestion and difficulty with thought process.

If you feel you are suffering from symptoms of altitude illness, you should see a physician immediately. A physician can determine if medication is appropriate. Severe cases are treated with oxygen therapy and the patient is transported to a lower elevation.

How to Avoid High Altitude Illness

If at all possible, it is suggested that you spend an extra day and night in Denver, which has an elevation of 5,280 feet, as opposed to 9,000 feet. This will give your body a chance to adjust to the change in altitude a step at a time. Avoid alcohol, sleeping pills and narcotic pain medication during your first few days here. Alcohol and drugs will escalate the symptoms of altitude illness. Drink plenty of fluids and try to acclimate to the altitude.

The American Heart Association of Colorado suggests that visitors to high altitude areas follow these tips for their first 48-72 hours in the high country:

  • Eat lightly
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Keep physical exertion to a minimum

It is very important to remember that a chance for severe sunburn increases at higher elevations. Again, this is because of decreased oxygen. For your protection always wear a sunscreen (preferably a protection factor of 15 or above), and proper eye gear or sunglasses that screen ultraviolet or infrared light. (Improper eye protection can be worse than no protection at all.)

(The above information was selected from the brochure "High Altitude and Your Health", distributed by the Summit Medical Center).


When selecting garments for your insulation layer, you should try to use materials which provide thickness but are not dense and heavy. This will give the best combination of insulation and breathability. Thick, loosely knit sweaters and high-bulk, low-weight garments made of synthetic fiberfill or fleece meet these requirements very well.

As with undergarments, it is very important to be able to ventilate to rid your body of excess heat when necessary. A crew neck sweater is not always the best choice, because it can be difficult to vent or take off. Insulation may consist of one or more layers. Each layer should be relatively easy to put on and take off, so you can control your eat retention by adding or removing layers.

It is the insulation layers which provide the layering system with much of its flexibility. For instance, if you anticipate that you will be maintaining a high activity level for an extended length of time in a cold environment, you should remove the insulation layers, so that at the start of your activity you are wearing only the underwear and the outer layer. You will be cold when you start, but your body will warm rapidly, and you will begin to perspire. As you near the end of your activity, you should try to taper off slowly, so that the moisture that has accumulated has a chance to evaporate. Once you have stopped, put on your insulation layers and you will remain comfortable.

Outer Shell

The outer layer is often called a shell, because its purpose is to protect the other layers from wind rain and snow. It should also allow perspiration to escape to the environment. When choosing a shell garment, always consider the type and number of layers you will want to wear under it. A shell should be large enough to fit easily over the other layers. And always remember that dead air provides critical insulation. If the insulation layer is compressed by a tight outer layer, your system will loose efficiency. As with other layers, the shell garment should use closure systems that will allow easy ventilation. In this case, however, you should pay special attention to how the closures are designed. I the front closures and pockets are not carefully engineered, they can leak.


Even if most of your body is covered, you can still become very uncomfortable if you forget about your head, hands, and feet. Your body's extremities are extremely efficient at dissipating excess heat, and can be difficult to keep warm. This is particularly true of your hands and feet. One of the body's first reactions to cold is to constrict the surface blood vessels that carry warm blood to your skin. The body will allow the extremities to cool to preserve heat within the vital organs. That is why the hands and feet get cold first. Your body automatically reduces blood flow to them when it wants to conserve heat. So when your hands or feet get cold, it's a sure sign that you should take action to prevent further heat loss. It's easier to keep your hands and feet warm if you keep them dry. Try to wear gloves and footwear that are both waterproof and breathable, and wear glove liners and sock liners that wick moisture away from the skin.

The head dissipates heat even better than the other extremities, because it has a very rich, warm blood supply. Fortunately, the head's blood supply is not diminished when exposed to cold, so you can regulate heat retention and loss easily by wearing a hat when you want to retain heat and removing the hat when you need to rid yourself of excess heat.