Surviving On Thin Air

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DEAR DR. DONOHUE: Our 37-year-old daughter lives in Denver. She took her younger sister skiing where the altitude was 11,800 feet. Our younger daughter lives in Toronto, where the altitude is 250 feet. She felt discomfort or worse at the higher level.

Is it safe for an unacclimatized person to travel to such an altitude abruptly? How best should one treat altitude sickness? Are there potentially any serious or lasting effects of altitude sickness? — P and H.M.

ANSWER: At high altitudes the pressure of oxygen in the atmosphere drops, so less gets into the blood. Most healthy people can tolerate altitudes of 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) to 8,000 feet (2,400 meters) without difficulty. Older people and people with heart and lung disease might become short of breath at such heights.

An unacclimatized person, trying to function at 8,000 feet (2,400 meters) or more, can run into trouble if the person doesn’t make the ascent slowly. Above 8,000 feet, people should not ascend more than 1,000 feet a day without returning to a lower altitude to sleep. They can continue to go higher if they descend 1,000 feet each night to sleep. They will know they are pushing too fast if a moderate amount of activity leaves them breathless and bushed.

Acute mountain sickness, a formidable illness, occurs to unacclimatized people in the first six to 24 hours at a given height. People become short of breath, dizzy, have a dry cough and are nauseated. They often have a headache.

High-altitude pulmonary edema, an even more serious illness and an emergency, fills the lungs with fluid. People cough, and the cough’s mucus is pink or bloody. These people have to be taken quickly to a lower altitude, and personnel experienced in the treatment of this condition have to manage definitive treatment.

People who fully recover from either usually don’t have permanent damage. They are vulnerable to a second episode, however.

Your daughter can protect herself on her next visit by slowly ascending and by taking Diamox. It’s a mild diuretic that affords good protection against altitude sickness.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I have developed an unquenchable thirst, which makes me drink water all the time. As a result, I have to spend a lot of time in the bathroom urinating. Can a person drink too much water? — A.C.

ANSWER: A person can drink too much water, but that’s a very rare situation. A more likely explanation of what’s happening to you is diabetes.

Excessive thirst, drinking water nonstop to satisfy the thirst and the resulting need to urinate frequently are signs of diabetes. You must see a doctor soon.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: Can you get ringworm from eating too much candy? Is there any relationship between not keeping the body clean and ringworm? I have been told that both can cause it. — Z.C.

ANSWER: Neither causes it. Ringworm is a fungal infection. The infection can spring up on the head, the body, the hands or the feet (athlete’s foot). The fungus is picked up from someone else or from inanimate objects like the floor of a shower room.

Dr. Donohue regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but he will incorporate them in his column whenever possible. Readers may write him or request an order form of available health newsletters at P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475.

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