How to prevent Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness is a real concern when considering destinations. No one wants to spend their vacation time sidelined and feeling dreadful. With many amazing mountain destinations on my list, I have learned some techniques that help this sea-level-living gal enjoy every moment of my travels in high elevations. When I travelled to Peru, I was concerned about my body's ability to adjust to the higher elevations of Cusco and the Sacred Valley regions. Having travelled a fair amount within British Columbia, I was very aware that a low-grade altitude headache was fairly common my first day in the mountains or after a day of skiing. Altitude sickness, or soroche, happens when your body doesn't get enough oxygen from the air at high altitudes. It's more likely to happen when people travel quickly from lower altitudes to 2,400 m (8000 ft) or higher.

I'm older, I live at sea level, and I have asthma. Everything that I was reading online suggested that the potential for me to suffer was great. I decided to seek advice from the doctors and staff at Vancouver Travel Medicine and Vaccination Clinic.

Altitude sickness is unpredictable. It can affect fit and unfit people, young or old, male or female. Symptoms include headache, loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, dizziness, vomiting, and general brain fog. These symptoms may be mild or quite severe.


Some people may be like me: I adjusted very well the first time I arrived in Cusco but the next time, I suffered horribly. For most people, symptoms will dissipate within days as your body adjusts. In rare instances, when symptoms do not improve, or signs of blueness appear around fingertips and lips, proper medical advice must be sought.


As with many things in life, there is no one surefire method to solving this problem and to avoid suffering the worst effects of soroche. Instead, the best advice requires layering both prevention and treatment options.

Prevention


The absolute best way to avoid suffering is to increase elevation slowly and steadily. Those who fly from Lima (150m/500ft) to Cusco (3350m/11000ft) are much more likely to suffer compared to those who can take more time to slowly climb. My most successful adjustment to the higher elevation happened when I travelled via PeruHop to Cusco over ten days. My worst happened when I travelled from sea level on the Manu River to Cusco in several hours.

Keeping well hydrated, and avoiding smoking and drinking will really help. Nicotine and Alcohol are dehydrating. During the period of adjustment, alcohol becomes more potent and smoking can result in extreme dizziness. Your doctor can also prescribe medication that has shown some success. Pills are started several days before rapid ascents. Some people swear by these. I'm less convinced, as I have experience bad symptoms even after taking them. On the other hand, I'm not sure I wouldn't have suffered worse.


Treatment


You may do everything right but still you begin to realize that you are struggling. If possible, descend at least 450m (1500 ft). For travellers flying into Cusco to visit Machu Picchu, spending a couple of days in the lower elevations of Sacred Valley will help you adjust.


It would be wise to hold off a couple of day before more rigorous activities such as Rainbow Mountain, Colca Canyon, and Inca Trail hikes. Take your cue from the locals who have learned to live in even higher elevations. They move slower, breathe deeper and ingest coca either through chewing leaves or in a tea. Increased carb intake has also proven to be effective -- eat some bread or pasta. Take a nap, go to sleep early. Advil or Tylenol helps. Caffeine has mixed results.

What ISN'T effective are non-medical oxygen infusions. Don't fall for either the oxygen bars or the cans of oxygen sold everywhere. Multiple studies have shown no benefits to these commercial applications beyond a temporary placebo effect (even when the operator wears a lab coat). I assure you that "toughing it out" is equally ineffective and *may* result in vomiting behind a market stall at a significant UNESCO world history site.


 

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