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How to Deal With High Elevation When You Arrive in Colorado

Your skin is dry, and you're sucking wind. But why, exactly? We talked to a physician to learn more about how elevation impacts us so drastically.

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You finally did it: You packed the U-Haul trailer, towed it across the country, and made it safely to Denver—which was exhausting enough. But now, as you carry your belongings up to your second-floor apartment, you’re pausing every few stairs to catch your breath. Maybe that roadside diet (too many gas station hot dogs?) is weighing you down, but what’s more likely is that your body is reacting to an abrupt change in elevation.

At a mile high, Denver is one of the highest cities in North America (we rank third in elevation for state capitals, behind Santa Fe, New Mexico at 7,200 feet and Cheyenne, Wyoming at 6,000.) While some newcomers might not be impacted by the thin air, others will struggle for days and, sometimes, weeks. It might affect your sleep, your exercise, your skin, and more. To understand what happens to the body—and what you can do about it—at elevation, we chatted with Eric Lung, associate medical director at Sky Ridge Medical Center.

(De)hydration

“Our bodies compensate [for thinner air] by breathing a little heavier. That does a couple of things. We lose fluid, and we become more dehydrated,” Lung says.“We’re losing water in different ways. Just by breathing more.” 

Compounding the loss of fluid, the air is extremely dry, and sweat evaporates quickly—meaning people might not be aware they’re losing so much water. Lung explains that when these things happen and the body begins compensating, it can go into what’s called “respiratory alkalosis” which might result in fatigue, headache, or insomnia. The most common remedy is hydration. Even before you arrive at elevation, you should be drinking lots of water. That way, by the time you roll into Denver with your sights set on a stiff IPA, you won’t be operating from such a hydration deficit. 

Sin Tax

Speaking of that stiff IPA, we know Denver has a reputation for craft beer and legal bud. And, of course, people come here with specific intentions of indulging in those pleasures. “Nobody’s gonna say: ‘Come to Colorado, don’t drink craft beer for two days.’ That’s not going to happen,” Lung says. But he does stress caution: don’t indulge in too much too quickly, especially because alcohol’s impact will be more severe at elevation (again, hydrating is key), and some of the legal weed might hit harder than what you’re used to. 

Scaling Up

If possible, take it easy the first few days after you arrive. Lung says that most people will be able to acclimate in Denver after a few days, but he sees issues when people try to do too much out of the gates—like driving into the mountains and recreating at even higher elevations. People can begin to experience severe altitude sickness at around 8,000 feet, and many of Colorado’s mountain towns sit at or above that elevation (Breckenridge, for example, is at 9,600 feet, and even nearby destinations like Conifer are over 8,000.) Be careful if summiting a fourteener was the first thing on your bucket list: At elevations that high, you might develop swelling in your lungs or brain, and the only remedy is to descend to a lower elevation.

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