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Breathe Easier

Be Strong
posted: 08/16/2002

In 1902, scientists built the lab Rifugio Regina Margherita atop Italy's 15,000-foot Monte Rosa to find out what happens to men when they climb too close to the sky. A century later, two studies have shed light on high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), a condition in which alpine pressures break capillaries in the lungs, leading to leakage. Go too high, too fast, and accumulating fluid leaves you to, literally, drown yourself.

In previous HAPE studies, researchers always waited 24 to 48 hours after the initial onset of symptoms to test climbers and always found evidence of inflammation; they assumed inflammation caused HAPE. Erik Swenson, a University of Washington pulmonologist, discovered the opposite: He took X-rays and measured lung-fluid levels of 16 subjects within 14 hours of topping Monte Rosa. There was plenty of fluid, but no inflammation. Which means that once-popular anti-inflammatory meds won't help.

But something else might. Swiss researchers, led by Urs Scherrer, studied 37 climbers who had a history of HAPE, giving 18 a puff of salmeterol-used to treat asthma-and spraying 19 others with a placebo. Everyone clambered to the lab, where the researchers measured how the climbers could clear sodium from their lungs-and, by extension, water, which naturally follows sodium. In the salmeterol group, only six showed signs of edema, compared to 14 in the control. Salmeterol reduced HAPE's attack rate by 50 percent. "It's truly a breakthrough," says Peter Hackett, head of the International Society of Mountain Medicine. "Salmeterol is perfectly safe and isn't even expensive."

So, should you take a whiff with your breakfast burrito before loading the triple at 1,140-foot Boyne Mountain? Certainly not. But at the tip-tops of high resorts, like Arapahoe Basin (13,050 feet), HAPE is a possibility. Swenson estimates that 10 percent of skiers sometimes experience mild signs. "If you're unusually breathless or have a nagging cough, descend right away and take it easy," he advises. "Start coughing pink and frothy? Find a hospital." And when you scramble even higher, you increase the chance of succumbing to HAPE-and the chance that salmeterol will work. "I wouldn't be surprised if people try it before they climb," says Scherrer. "Just in case."

THE PULSE

When you trade in your floppy leather tele boots for plastic, you're getting more than a sweet set of kicks-you might be saving yourself an ER visit. A recent Swedish study tracked telemark injuries over 11 years and found that ankle and foot problems, once the most common, decreased from 35 to 22 percent. At the same time, use of high plastic boots increased from 24 to 67 percent.

Healthy Brew for Sots?

So it's come to this: Michelob is rolling out the first cases of Ultra, a low-carb beer, for the Atkins obsessed. The new 96-calorie brew has 2.9 grams of carbs per 12-ounce serving; other light beers contain around five grams, and regular bottles sometimes top out at 13.

Bring on the Funk

Do you soak your polypro every time you pound a bump run? Be thankful for your sweat. German scientists have discovered that perspiration doesn't just cool you off-it contains a strong germ fighter that could help prevent infections. The potent protein, dermicidin, could be the first line of defense against nasties like E. coli bacteria and Candida fungus, which colonize on the skin before getting in deep.

Inner Peace Goes Sky-High

Armrest hogs. Round-the-clock pit-stoppers. Fly long enough and you're bound to have a nightmare neighbor. Now, thanks to JetBlue airlines, you can just relax by busting out a Bidalasana-it's on a new yoga card found in the seat pocket. Read up on meditation, pass the peanuts, and go straight to prana.-E.S.

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