What is Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness is the bane of almost all travellers visiting places which are higher up than around 2,400 metres (8,000 feet). For the most part, it is a considerable annoyance but it is important to adequately prepare yourself for high altitude travel otherwise you could ruin your trip. In extreme cases, altitude sickness can be extremely debilitating even to the point of being life-threatening. Almost everyone who is not accustomed to high altitudes will be effected to a degree by altitude sickness though most manage to acclimatise within a couple of days. To ensure that your trip to the mountains goes smoothly, take the following precautions.

Know the Symptoms

Many of the symptoms associated with altitude sickness are similar to those of other conditions. The most common symptoms include uncomfortable breathing, headaches, dehydration, insomnia, dizziness, fatigue and agitation. Severe symptoms include fever, dry coughing, nausea and problems walking. In the severest cases of all, high altitude pulmonary edema may even occur in which fluid accumulates in body tissues. This is a life-threatening condition that can occur at extremely high altitudes of over 5,500 metres (18,000 feet). If you have such symptoms, you should seek medical attention immediately.

Climb Gradually

The very first symptoms can appear at about 2,000 metres (6,500 feet) and they will progressively get worse unless you acclimatize as you go. At altitudes of over 3,500 metres (11,500 feet), the effects are considerably more severe but again, most people can get acclimatized after some time. After 5,500 metres (18,000 feet), permanent human habitation becomes impossible. The best way to prepare for altitude sickness is not to go straight to a high altitude place. If you are visiting high-flying Andean cities such as Cusco in Peru (3,200 metres), for example, it is a good idea to start off at a lower place, building up your tolerance of high altitude as you go.

Stay Hydrated

As previously mentioned, dehydration is a common symptom of altitude sickness and it effects the majority of people to some degree. To keep hydrated, simply drink a lot of water and never do any form of exercise unless you have plenty of water with you. Take it easy on your first couple of days in a high altitude place. While staying hydrated is important, you should also remember that drinking alcohol does not help. Alcohol actually has the opposite effect and you should definitely avoid drinking much on your first few days in the mountains. If you are a smoker, you should also avoid smoking as much as you can for the first few days.

Avoid Strenuous Exercise

It is perfectly normal to get out of breath much faster when you are at high altitudes and, contrary to what some people might try to have you believe, this has absolutely nothing to do with your level of physical fitness. Altitude sickness does not discriminate – it is just as likely to affect an athlete as a couch potato. While a lot of people go to the mountains for things such as hiking and climbing, it is important to build yourself up to it at a pace with which you feel comfortable. In the first few days, avoid any form of strenuous exercise and, once you get used to the altitude, build it up step by step.

Bring Medications

There are various medications that can help to treat altitude sickness but do not expect to rely entirely on them without paying attention to the previous ways to prevent sickness. In the Andes, and particularly in Peru and Bolivia, locals will often recommend that you drink coca tea or chew coca candies or even just the leaves themselves. A lot of people find that this helps, so it is worth a try. More effective medicine, however, includes the drug acetazolamide. It is also a good idea to take a supply of ibuprofen with you since this will help to alleviate many of the more common symptoms such as headaches and inflammations.

By Charles Jackson