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Altitude sickness, or AMS (acute mountain sickness), occurs when you go from a low elevation to a higher one — typically over 8,000 feet — and the lack of oxygen at these higher altitudes causes the body to react adversely. Symptoms are similar to what you’d experience during a hangover, and include headaches, fatigue, dizziness, trouble sleeping, nausea and even vomiting in more severe cases. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to understand why AMS affects some more than others, as age, your level of physical fitness and sex don’t seem to be factors. Although AMS can strike at any high-altitude spots around the world, it often affects visitors to Peru, a country home to many popular tourist destinations like Machu Picchu, Cusco and Lake Titicaca high above sea level in the Andes mountains.
Here at TPG, we aren’t medical professionals — just avid travelers who’ve experienced AMS firsthand — so if you’re concerned, speak to your doctor before traveling. Also note that what works for one person might not work for another. With that in mind, here are some of our best tips for handling high altitudes.
Take It Easy
One common symptom of AMS is shortness of breath. It’s normal to feel this way, especially when climbing or doing physical activity in an area of high altitude, which is why it’s important to lay low and take it easy the first day or two. Don’t push yourself, as your body is still getting used to the thin mountain air. Avoid scheduling big hikes or high-energy activities the day of your arrival and instead, relax and let yourself acclimatize.
Organize Your Trip for a Gradual Adjustment
If you are planning a trip to Peru, for instance, it’s best to ascend slowly. If you want to ease your body into the elevation, start with Machu Picchu, which is only at 7,972 feet, then head to the Sacred Valley, which is at 9,514 feet. After that, go to Cusco, at 11,150 feet. Then plan to see the Colca Canyon and Valley, with a base in Chivay, at 11,500 feet. Your last spot should be Lake Titicaca, at 12,500 feet. Going in this order will help to minimize the effects of AMS and allow your body to adjust gradually.
Eat Light and Right
Eating heavy foods can make you feel lethargic and isn’t a good idea if you have nausea. Instead, eat light but don’t avoid carbohydrates; at high elevations, the body burns carbs at a faster rate and eating carbs can help replenish the ones you’re burning off. Since Peru has about 4,000 different varieties of potatoes, it shouldn’t be too difficult to carb load — just don’t overeat. Iron is also important for the body at high elevations (especially in females), as it helps to increase the number of red blood cells and thus access to oxygen within the body. Quinoa, for instance, is high in iron — and happens to be a staple food in Peru.
Stay Hydrated — but Steer Clear of Booze
It’s easier to become dehydrated at higher altitudes, which can exacerbate symptoms of AMS — feeling weak, being dizzy or having a headache — so make sure you drink plenty of water. Plus, the higher you go, the drier the air is and this can lead to dehydration. It’s suggested you drink double the amount of water you normally would, or at least try to. The effects of alcohol seem to be heightened at a higher elevation as well, so be sure to limit your booze intake. You also don’t want to replace water with caffeinated beverages, but sometimes a small soda can help with an AMS headache or to settle your stomach if you’re experiencing nausea.
Some people swear by doing yoga to deal with AMS. Doing poses that turn you upside down make the blood rush to your head, sending more oxygen to your brain. Pranayama, or deep-breathing exercises, may also help with shortness of breath, bringing more air into your lungs.
AMS symptoms occur because you have less access to oxygen thanks to the thinner air. Many large hotel chains will offer oxygen tanks upon request and in some cases, breathing deeply from these tanks may even be free. If you think you might need this, check with your desired accommodations when booking to see if the option is offered.
Try Some Local Remedies…
Peruvian locals swear by chewing coca leaves and sipping tea made with them to help with the altitude — the leaves are a stimulant similar to caffeine, giving you more energy and often helping with headaches. The leaves also contain protein and fiber as well as many essential vitamins and minerals like calcium, potassium and vitamins B1, B2, C and E.
Don’t worry about getting addicted. You are chewing the leaf of a plant that has to go through a serious chemical process to be turned into cocaine, so you’d have to chew several pounds a day to get high or hooked — it’s pretty much impossible to physically consume enough to do so. Don’t try to bring any coca leaves or coca tea back into the US, though — it’s illegal.
Soroche pills are also available at any pharmacy in Peru, and in many other Latin American countries with high elevations. The ingredients are pretty simple: 325 mg of acetylsalicylic acid, 15 mg of caffeine and 160 mg of salophen — in layman’s terms, it’s a mix of aspirin, caffeine and paracetamol in one pill and seems to work well for AMS sufferers. If you don’t want to try it, sometimes simple over-the-counter pills like aspirin or ibuprofen can help with headaches and other AMS symptoms, so stash some in your suitcase before you go. Of course, you should always consult your doctor before taking new medicines.
…Or Bring Your Own
Acetazolamide — more commonly known as Diamox or water pills — can prevent and help alleviate altitude sickness, though it must be prescribed ahead of time by your doctor. Keep in mind that these are diuretics, so you’ll likely have to use the bathroom more frequently when you’re taking them. You should also drink extra water to make up for the loss in bodily fluids.
If Symptoms Become Severe, Head to the Hospital
The most severe forms of altitude sickness are rare but can be very serious. High-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) happens when there’s excess fluid on the lungs, causing breathlessness, high fever and coughing up frothy fluid. High-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) happens when there’s fluid on the brain, causing severe confusion, clumsiness or strange behavior that can include violence. Both conditions can be fatal within hours and while these two forms of altitude sickness are unlikely, if you begin to feel truly awful, play it safe and head to the nearest hospital or get yourself down to a lower elevation as soon as possible.
Have you ever suffered from altitude sickness? What helped you to recover? Let us know, below.
Featured image by Leo Mcgilly/EyeEm/Getty Images. All other photos by the author except where otherwise noted.
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