Monday, May 7, 2018

The Unquenchable Thirst - Dry-Throat in the Mountains

In the mountains, the air can be incredibly dry.

We all know that cold air tends to be dry air. And we all know that there is cold air in the mountains. So the logical conclusion is that the air in the mountains is dry...

Of course, those of us who spend time in the Cascades hiding from rain storms might dispute this. But I digress. Mostly, cold air in the mountains is dry...even high in the Cascades...

Most mountaineers tend to breath through their mouths. It's hard climbing up steep terrain with a big pack. The combination of stressing your body, sweating and breathing through your mouth can lead to dry-throat, a feeling like there's sandpaper in your throat.

The feeling of dry-throat can be so intense that an attempt to swallow will lead to a gag reflex. And a gag reflex will lead to vomit. And vomit usually means it's time to turn around and go home.

Healthgrades defines dry-throat as:

...a rough, scratchy, sometimes itchy feeling in the throat. The most common cause of dry throat is drying out of the mucus membranes, often as a result of exercise, sleeping with your mouth open, breathing through your mouth, living in a dry environment, or simply not drinking enough fluids.

Dry throat is also caused by tobacco or marijuana use, voice strain, vomiting, excessive coughing, throat inflammation, allergies, and, in rare cases, cancers of the throat and esophagus.

The article goes on to suggest that one seek medical treatment for this. But -- unless this is a condition that you are experiencing when you're not in the mountains -- you should be able to remedy it yourself. If these remedies don't work, or you're experiencing dry-throat in environments other than in cold mountains, then you might want to seek out medical advice.

There are two ways to manage dry-throat in the mountains. First, you can hydrate.

You could carry an easily accessible water bottle, or even use a hydration bladder. Taking regular sips of water will keep your throat intact, while also helping with your hydration.

The downside is that when the air is dry, water often freezes easily. It is possible to keep a water bottle inside your jacket to keep it from freezing. But if your dry-throat is chronic, you may have to take it out to take a sip every few minutes. This isn't super realistic when you're trying to move quickly in the mountains.

It can be difficult to keep a hydration bladder from freezing. One has to constantly think about it and do several things in order to ensure that the water stays liquid:

  1. Use a tube insulator. 
  2. Keep the bite valve in your collar. The bite valve is often the first thing to freeze. It's also the easiest thing to unfreeze by putting it back in your collar.
  3. Blow water out of the tube and back into the bladder after every use.
  4. On extremely cold trips, consider using a hydration bladder backpack. Put this under your jacket and under your pack. It's uncomfortable, but the bladder won't freeze.

Obviously, these things take time and energy. If you are not an organized person and you can't remember to put the valve back in your collar or blow the water out of the tube, a hydration bladder won't work for you.

A hard candy can keep your throat from turning to sandpaper in dry air.

A second option is to suck on a hard candy or a throat lozenge. I find this to work extremely well in super dry environments. The candy ensures that saliva continues to drip down your throat throughout the day. This will keep your throat moist, but it certainly will not hydrate you.

The idea with a hard candy or throat lozenge is that you keep it in your cheek for a long time. You shouldn't actively suck on it, as that will cause it to melt faster. Ideally, a single candy should last for 30 to 45 minutes.

Having a candy in your cheek for hours on end for a series of days probably isn't the best thing in the world for your teeth...but it does work. If this is something that is problematic for you, consider one of the water options, or some kind of hybrid option.

Dry-throat can be a debilitating issue for a mountaineer. If this is a real problem for you -- as it has been for me in the past -- experiment with these ideas and find what works best for you...

--Jason D. Martin


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