Altitude sickness (also know as mountain sickness) is rarely fatal, but it will definitely put a damper on your travel plans. Avoid ruining days on your trip by taking the necessary steps to be aware of and avoid altitude sickness. I experienced mild altitude sickness when visiting Machu Picchu in Peru due to the high altitude, and while I was still able to push through and continue on, it definitely affected my enjoyment and I wish I had been more pre-emptive in my preparation for this aspect of the trip.
What Is Altitude Sickness & How Does It Occur?
Altitude sickness happens when you are at or go to high altitudes (usually around 8,000ft above sea level or higher) with thinner atmosphere that has a decreased amount of oxygen, and then quickly ascend another 1,000ft in less than a day. The drastic change in oxygen results in abnormally low blood oxygen levels, has a negative impact on your body. It takes your body a few days to adjust to lower oxygen levels, and when you are ascending more quickly than your body can adjust, this is when you become suspectable to altitude sickness.
Symptoms of Altitude Sickness
There are different “levels” of altitude sickness and the severity of how you are affected is different for everyone. Generally, if you exercise regularly and are in pretty good shape, you’ll be affected less than those who aren’t.
In the vast majority of cases, this is really the only discomfort you’re going to experience. It’s more annoying than anything else since you just want to enjoy your trip and can usually be treated with a high-dose of Advil. Altitude sickness can progress beyond this however and in rare cases can become deadly.
More Serious Sympotions Include
- Trouble Waling
- Trouble Breathing/ Respiratory Failure
If you start to experience any of these more serious symptoms, you should seek medical attention. Your brain could be swelling which could eventually result in a coma.
Tips For Avoiding & Treating Mild Altitude Sickness
If you’re traveling in the mountains or other high-altitude areas there are a few things you can do to avoid getting altitude sickness, or at least slow the onset and minimize the discomfort of its affects on your body. Basically, your body just needs time to adjust, but if you aren’t able to take that time, here’s some things you can try:
If at all possible, try to not make huge gains in elevation in one day in order to allow your body to adjust (the same principal as when scuba diving). Keep your gains under 1,000ft to reduce your chances of getting altitude sickness.
Don’t Overexert Yourself
If you’re in a situation where you could be susceptible to altitude sickness, try to reduce your physical activity and how much you’re exerting yourself. The heavier/faster your breathing, the more your body will be affected by the lower oxygen causing your blood oxygen levels to drop faster. If possible, try to rest for the first 24hours at this new altitude.
Drink Lots of Water
Our bodies love water, there’s nothing better for us. Water will help to flush extra toxins out of your body and helps to body to adjust to these new conditions more easily. Water also evaporates more quickly at higher altitudes, which can cause you to become dehydrated without realizing it.
Alcohol is basically a poison to our bodies. If your body is already stressed, adding alcohol to the mix is only going to make it worse. This is what got me in Machu Picchu – I was fine during the day, but at night with dinner, after 1/2 a glass of wine, I would get a terrible debilitating headache (and quickly) and have to go to sleep early.
Eat Lots of Carbs
Foods that are high in carbs are really helpful if you’re in a high-altitude situation. When there’s less oxygen, your body uses more glycolysis for energy, which is basically your carbohydrate storage. You’re burn carbs at a faster rate (great for dieting, right?), so you need to eat more of them. Carbs are your energy source and without them, it will lead you to feeling fatigued. Some good carbs: whole grain pasta, brown rice, Ezekiel bread.
Eat Less Protein
This is completely backwards of what you would think if you’re feeling fatigued and tired, but proteins are some of the most difficult and energy-using things to digest. So when you’re in a low-oxygen situation, you want to make it as easy as possible for your body to get energy, which is to give is carbs (easy to digest) rather than difficult to digest proteins.
Eat Iron Rich Foods
This is especially a concern for women, and even more so women vegetarians. In order to compensate for the low oxygen levels, your body will need to make more red blood cells. Low iron levels decreases your body’s ability to make red blood cells, which means lower oxygen levels in your blood. This can even worsen the impact of altitude sickness. Some plant-based foods high in iron: soy, lentils, spinach, quinoa, and beans, or try taking an iron supplement.
Take Ginkgo Biloba
This can be taken in the morning and evening for 4-5 days before your trip to help prevent on onset of altitude sickness, and also throughout the duration. Ginkgo Biloba will help to thin your blood, which improves circulation and the ability of the brain to deal with the lower oxygen levels since it’s essentially be primed for it already. Capsules work the fastest, but tea is also an option as well.
Sleep Low & Get Lots Of It
Even if you’ve climbed 1,000ft throughout the day, try to find the lowest point of that 1,000ft as the spot for you to sleep. Ideally, this will be less than 1,000ft from wherever you slept the night before in order to reduce the affects of altitude sickness. Sleeping is when your body is most efficient at healing itself and is when you make more red blood cells for carrying oxygen throughout the body. The longer you sleep, the more blood cells you can generate.
Take Advil/Pain Killers
This is a pre-emptive measure to avoid getting a headache which is the most common and usually the first symptom of altitude sickness.
Avoid all depressants (in addition to alcohol), which can include sleeping pills or other nervous system medications. Depressants can suppress breathing, which is the last thing you want when oxygen levels are already low.
Decent To A Lower Altitude
If your symptoms get really bad, they aren’t going away and your body isn’t adjusting, going to a lower altitude will pretty much reserve all of the affects and will allow more oxygen to get back into your bloody stream. If you are still experiencing symptoms at a lower level or if your symptoms get worse, then it’s time to pack it in and go see a doctor.