Dr Tim Hammond, Chief Medical Officer for assistance and claims specialists CEGA sets out the less obvious risks of winter sports holidays - for devotees of skiing, strolling and après-ski alike.
The risks: Drinking alcohol at altitude will exacerbate its effects and increase the risk of feeling disoriented, having an accident and getting lost. And, if something does go wrong after over-indulging, your travel insurance may not cover you.
What to do: There’s no need to be teetotal on holiday – but avoid drinking excessively, and don’t walk home alone after an indulgent night out: temperatures drop dramatically after dark in the mountains and ski resorts are not the safest places in which to be lost.
The risks: Oxygen levels in high altitude resorts, especially in North America, are much lower than you may be used to. Nausea, confusion, headaches and shortness of breath can all be signs of altitude sickness. So too can concentration problems and slow reaction times.
What to do: Drink plenty of water and avoid excessive activity on the first day at high-altitude. You can even stagger your journey and gradually increase altitude over a few days. Bear in mind that children and sufferers of respiratory illnesses or reduced lung function will be most affected.
The risks: Mountain weather is unpredictable and a “white-out” on the slopes can come from nowhere. It can make it hard to see anything more than a few feet away and increase your chances of getting lost – even if you’re not skiing.
What to do: Stay close to other people and keep the person in front in view until you get to the bottom of the mountain. If it’s windy, stay away from the mountain edge and try to find shelter under trees. Call for help if you can’t find your way back.
The risks: Extremes of temperature can be felt in a single afternoon. A fierce sun can burn, whilst intense cold and wind can quickly cause frostbite (as can touching frozen metal with bare skin). Occasionally, hypothermia can even set in, causing excessive shivering, weakness and exhaustion, as well as slurred speech and mental uncertainty.
What to do: Wear plenty of sunscreen, cover your extremities and keep skin away from frozen metal. If your fingers, toes or ears begin to feel numb, get inside as quickly as possible to warm up. Finally, wear layered clothing so you can increase or decrease warmth as the temperature changes. And, if you think you’re experiencing signs of hypothermia, get professional help.
The cost of medical repatriation
The risks: You don’t have to be on skis to have an accident: slipping on ice outside your hotel could give you a broken leg. And if you need an emergency repatriation from a European ski resort, it could set you back up to £8,000 without insurance (even if you have a European Health Insurance Card). From the US or Canada it could cost you up to £70,000.
What to do: Take out a good travel insurance policy that covers everyone in your party for every activity that they plan to do (even if it’s only walking). And remember that a travel insurance policy doesn’t just cover the costs of repatriation - it also offers you a helping hand when you need it most.
Injuring a third party
The risks: You could be sued for an injury to a third party, if it’s deemed to be your fault. A personal liability claim can be made months after the event, when the full implications of an injury are clear – and it could bankrupt you if you don’t have insurance
What to do: If you want to avoid potentially high costs and litigation headaches, make sure your travel insurance policy includes personal liability cover.