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Adjusting to Climate Changes While Traveling

If you’ve ever traveled to Mexico City, Mammoth Lakes, Calif. or Lhasa, China, then you probably understand the pitfalls of visiting a city with a high altitude.

Acclimatization — or physically adjusting to environmental and climate changes in certain locations — is an important consideration when you travel. 

Your age, overall health and physical condition will determine how you adjust to a new climate. It typically takes a healthy person two weeks to get accustomed to the climate of a new place. But if your trip is less than two weeks (which it probably will be for most people), you can do several things to cope with temperature changes — whether they are related to altitude, extreme heat or cold weather. 

Warning Signs of Climate-Related Illness

When we mention high altitude climates, we are typically talking about locations with elevations between 4,921 and 11,483 feet. 

When you travel to a high altitude location, several things can happen. You may get a headache, feel fatigue, experience dizziness, sleep disruption or an upset stomach. These symptoms usually appear one to two days after you get to the location. 

In places with extreme heat, warning signs of heat-related illness include heat rash, dizziness, fainting or heat cramps after strenuous exercise. Older people and those with high blood pressure or other chronic conditions may experience heat exhaustion, which can lead to extreme thirst, nausea, sweating and lack of coordination. Heat stroke also is a danger in certain climates. Heat stroke is a life-threatening condition that happens when the body is unable to regulate its own temperature. If you travel to a hot climate and have a high fever and feel faint, it’s best to see a doctor immediately to make sure your condition isn’t serious. 

In extremely cold climates, health risks include frostnip, frostbite and hypothermia, which occur when your body temperature decreases to at least 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Hypothermia can be mild, moderate or severe, and you may notice signs such as goose bumps, intense shivering or rapid heartbeat. It also may be difficult to use your hands to perform simple tasks. 

People who have poor circulation or poor body heat production are at greater risk for frostbite because their bodies can’t regulate temperature as well. Outside factors, like drinking alcohol, can affect how you respond to cold weather, too. Alcohol causes your blood vessels to dilate, leading to a false sense of warmth and a quicker loss of body heat that puts you at great risk for cold-weather illness. 

Prepare Before You Go

If you plan to travel to an extreme climate, it’s important to plan ahead and make sure you know how to stay well in a new environment. First of all, get checked out by your doctor before you go. A clinician can help you prepare for your trip and give you advice that can minimize your risk of illness. 

Get any necessary medications before you leave and plan your trip so that you get enough rest and have adequate time to adjust to a new climate. This is particularly important in high altitude environments.

If you plan to travel to high temperature areas, stay hydrated and wear light, loose clothing to prevent heat stroke and dehydration. If you plan to spend time in the sun, wear sunscreen and a hat to prevent sunburn and to decrease risk of melanoma. For extremely hot climates, pay attention to potential warning signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. If you feel dizzy, faint or disoriented, try to get out of direct sunlight and hydrate. If you continue to feel faint, seek medical treatment as soon as possible. 

If you are traveling to an extremely cold climate, make sure you have the right clothing to protect your skin and to retain as much body heat as possible. A warm coat and pants are a given, but make sure you have warm socks and gloves to protect your feet and hands; fingers and toes are most easily susceptible to frostnip. If you discover that some of your skin is affected by frostnip, submerge the affected areas in warm, not hot, water. If your extremities are frostbitten, seek emergency medical attention immediately. 

If you are in a high altitude location and begin to experience any of the symptoms I previously mentioned — or more serious symptoms like shortness of breath and difficulty walking — the quickest remedy is to get to a lower altitude as soon as possible.

Travel can be exciting and fun, and you may be hesitant to interrupt your travel plans, but your health is more important. Taking the right precautions can help you stay healthy and enjoy your trip.