The Unique Sickness of the Mountains

Photo Courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine

Photo Courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine

Julia Rodriguez, Editor in Chief

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Let’s start off the with the facts: The highest point of elevation in the United States is Mount McKinley in Alaska, at 20,310 feet. The highest state, however, is Colorado, with its average elevation at 6,800 feet. BETA is only 95 feet above sea level! 

With the Rio Grande Valley being so close to sea level, one may often wonder what it’s like to be 9,000 or 10,000 feet in the air. When travelling on an airplane, an individual may go from sea level to thousands of feet in the air in just a few minutes. The adjustment is abrupt, and uncomfortable for some, but imagine staying at such a high elevation for a few days, or even a few years. Wouldn’t that have its effects, too? 

Indeed, it does. Altitude sickness is extremely common in areas of high elevation. The air is thinner, meaning there is less oxygen in the atmosphere. Acclimating, or becoming accustomed to a new climate or new conditions, is not an enjoyable process, especially for people who are accustomed to being at sea level, where oxygen is plentiful. 

Common symptoms of altitude sickness include headache, nausea, shortness of breath, and lightheadedness. For some people, being at high altitudes can be life threatening. The normal oxygen level for a healthy being is above 90, between 95 and 100. Oxygen levels below ninety are considered low but are not as alarming as levels below eighty. If one’s oxygen level dips under eighty percent, it may lead to hypoxemia, meaning there is a low level of oxygen in your blood. 

Believe it or not, some areas with high altitude actually sell cans of oxygen in their convenient stores, right next to the register for easy access. With a decent-sized bottle costing approximately $20, one can take a gulp of oxygen and potentially lessen the effects of altitude sickness. Consuming oxygen itself is extremely helpful, but it is equally as important to stay hydrated, and to not drink alcohol. Alcohol easily worsens the symptoms of altitude sickness and increases the chance of dangerous dehydration.  

It is recommended that people not familiar with the high altitudes should start the acclimation process early and progress gradually. When planning a trip in the mountains, make sure to dedicate a day to acclimating, and avoid uncomfortably high areas. Another option would be to start the trip in a lower area, and moderately increase the altitude as the days go by. Eventually, the destination will be reached, and the adjustment won’t be as nearly as harsh. 

Vacationing in the mountains is an amazing experience to remember. The views are stunning and beautiful in their own unique way. In order to enjoy the views and atmosphere as much as possible, be prepared for the change in altitude. Stay hydrated, avoid alcoholic beverages, maybe purchase a can of oxygen, and pack a huge supply of chap stick.   


In case you’re curious, here are the elevations of nearby cities: 

Harlingen – 39 feet 

McAllen – 122 feet 

Pharr – 112 feet

Mission – 141 feet 

Brownsville – 33 feet