How to… cope with altitude sickness

 

We all love adventuring high up into the mountains, but altitude sickness can become a real problem for some of us. Here’s what to know…

 

What is altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness can occur when you travel to a high altitude too quickly and subsequently, breathing becomes difficult as you’re not able to take in as much oxygen.

Symptoms of altitude sickness usually develop between 6 – 24 hours after reaching altitudes of more than 3,000m (9,842 feet) above sea level.

Also called acute mountain sickness (AMS), altitude sickness, if ignored, can result a medical emergency.

Age, sex or physical fitness have no bearing on your likelihood of getting altitude sickness.

High altitude is an altitude between 1,500-3,500 metres (5,000-11,500 feet). Very high altitude is an altitude between 3,500-55,00 metres (11,500-18,000 feet) and extreme altitude is an altitude above 5,500 metres (18,000 feet).

 Places with high altitude

Bolivia’s La Paz lies at 3,640m (11942ft), which makes it the highest capital in the world.

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In Peru, heights in Cusco reach 3,300m and Puno at 3,860m. Machu Picchu heights reach 2,450m.

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Lhasa, situated in the Chinese autonomous region of Tibet, reaches an altitude of 12,000 ft above sea level.

The Jungfrau railway in Switzerland takes you to 11,000 ft at Jungfraujoch, which is aptly named ‘the top of Europe’.

 Altitude sickness symptoms

Symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Nausea/vomiting;
  • Gurgling sound when breathing; and
  • Loss of appetite.

Possible medication

Consider travelling with these medicines for altitude sickness:

  • Anti-sickness medication, like promethazine, for nausea;
  • Ibuprofen/paracetamol for headaches;
  • Acetazolamide to prevent and treat high altitude sickness;
  • Coca sweets or leaves.

You should begin taking medication 1-2 days before you start to go up in altitude and continue to take it while going up.

 Coca leaves

Just a quick point on leaves or sweets. When we were in Peru, we saw locals chew on leaves or put them in cups and mix with hot water to make a sort of tea. While there is no evidence to support that the leaves or sweets work, it is thought that they help to prevent altitude sickness but not cure it. You can also chew on the leaves if out and about. If using in tea, fill the cup up with leaves, don’t just add two or three in. Coca leaves are available in most hotel receptions.

While coca leaves and sweets seemed to help me, they did nothing for Joe, who really suffered from altitude sickness while we were in Bolivia.

What to do if you get altitude sickness?

Ideally, it’s best to let your body get used to high altitudes before moving on to higher altitudes by staying in the same place for up 24-48 hours to a week. However, if this is not possible, keep resting and stopping if you’re short of breath. Do not rush anywhere. Drink enough water and avoid alcohol. While you may not feel like eating, try to eat a balanced diet.

If you’re with a travel guide, let them know that you feel unwell. Some hotels, such as in Peru and Bolivia, provide oxygen tanks.

Try to keep the throat moist by drinking water.

 … If problems persist

See a doctor if your symptoms don’t improve or get worse, because if they’re ignored, they can lead to life-threatening conditions. At extreme heights, you are at risk of developing high-altitude cerebral oedema (brain swells with fluid) or high-altitude pulmonary oedema (fluid builds up on the lungs).

 

*We are not medical experts. The above is from our own experience and medical guidance. Always seek a doctor’s advice.

 

Checking out C & J.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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