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Beware of altitude sickness when hiking in the mountains

Backpacking in the Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Backpacking in the Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

With school out and summer in full swing, family vacations abound. But, it’s not just about beach adventures anymore. Many families are planning mountain hikes in the nearby Appalachians or even across the country in the Rockies.

But with that, we must be aware of altitude sickness, or acute mountain sickness.

Yesterday, I spoke with WAKR morning show host Ray Horner about this topic. We talked about the symptoms and treatment of acute mountain sickness. So be safe this summer and enjoy your adventures.

Below is an audio file and transcript of our discussion. Originally aired on 1590 WAKR-AM on July 9, 2014.

0:00

DR. CONGENI: Let me tell you why I want to cover [this topic]. I’ve had a few kids in the office that have been going on some big hikes in the summer and have come back and had some altitude sickness, [or] acute mountain sickness it’s known as.

In its real mild form, kids may just start out with headaches or sleep problems, loss of appetite. They kinda have low energy or weakness, maybe even dizziness in its earlier stages.

When mountain sickness or altitude sickness gets a lot worse, kids have problems with confusion. They start getting cyanosis we call it — blue lips and fingers tips — and [have] difficulty breathing. It’s called rales. It sounds like crumpled up paper, and they really have trouble breathing.

Dr. Joe Congeni

Dr. Joe Congeni

It can become a life-threatening problem, and you have to get them out of these high altitude areas and bring ‘em down to lower areas in many situations to get kids stabilized medically. So, it is kind of a big deal.

Uh, sometimes you need oxygen. Sometimes you need medicines. There are some preventative things that kids can do.

The reason I bring this up is, you know, there are a lot of kids this time of year [that] come in my office and tell me they’re not just staying in Ohio; they’re hiking in different areas. One in particular is the Boy Scouts of America.

My son’s leaving on his hike this weekend with his troop. There are 3,000 scouts a year that go to kind of the pinnacle of scouting: It’s called Philmont camp in New Mexico.

The Boy Scouts there have 140,000 acres that they hike on, and a typical hike like my son’s, they’ll be going for 10 days and go 60 to 70 miles in the mountains. Mount Baldy, which is one of the peaks, is 12,000 feet above sea level.

When you start getting up to 8,000, 10,000, 12,000 … feet above sea level, that’s when we get into these issues.

They’ll carry 50-pound backpacks. The highs during the days in the mountains can be up to 80 to 90 degrees and the lows at night can be 40 or even in the 30s.

HORNER: Wow.

DR. CONGENI: So, it’s a big swing. It’s really a … fun and interesting and exciting [event]. Many scouts have come back and told me it’s kinda a pinnacle of their career; it’s something they’ll always remember. It’s really a big deal.

But one of the real problems kids can get into is altitude sickness. So, we talk to them a little, even in Akron, Ohio, about things they can do to prevent this acute mountain sickness.

And overall, I would have to say — and this is just an editorial comment about my kids, my boys going into scouting — scouting is such a good thing for young men. Going on to being an Eagle Scout is one of the first things that they asked at all the med school interviews for my son. It’s really a big deal.

And really what it does is it helps boys become men. So for a lot of people who are looking for something to do with their young boys, Boy Scouts of America is a good way to go.

HORNER: So, I can call your boy and he can help me make some ice cream, right, Joe?

DR. CONGENI: [laughter] I hope he knows how to make ice cream and sell popcorn, too, with the Boy Scouts.

HORNER: [laughter] Well, good stuff. And, you’re right, that’s a topic I know since I’ve been with you now for almost 15 years that we’ve never touched on, so good information. Hey, listen …

DR. CONGENI: Yeah …

HORNER: What were you gonna say?

DR. CONGENI: Yeah, we always have to cover it for our board tests for sports medicine because you have to be aware of almost anything, but in Ohio, you’re not going to see acute mountain sickness. When you start getting up to 8,000, 10,000, 12,000 … feet above sea level, that’s when we get into these issues.

The fun thing at my office is hearing all the places people go in the summer, and many people do plan mountain hikes and things like that. So, I just wanted to get a chance this summer to bring that up, Ray.

HORNER: Alright, thanks, Joe, appreciate it. We’ll catch up with you next week.

DR. CONGENI: Have a great week. Thanks.

HORNER: Alright. Dr. Joe Congeni, Sports Medicine Center
at Akron Children’s Hospital, with us on 1590 WAKR.

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About Dr. Joe Congeni - Director of Sports Medicine

Dr. Joe Congeni is the Director, Sports Medicine; Clinical Co-Director, Center for Orthopedics and Sports Medicine at Akron Children's Hospital. For the past 25 years, Dr. Congeni has been the “go to” source for national and local media looking for information about pediatric sports medicine.