After spending 1 month in Ecuador, 5 months in Peru and 2 weeks in Bolivia, I have to say I definitely got some experience on how to deal with high altitude. These countries have lots of cities located in higher altitude, for example, La Paz, the capital of Bolivia is known as the capital highest elevated over the sea in the world at an elevation of 3650m
What is altitude sickness?
If you didn’t already know, there is a thing called altitude sickness. It is the symptoms and the body’s reaction to being in high elevation in combination with lower oxygen levels in the air. A serious case of altitude sickness can actually lead to conditions that in the worst case scenario can cause death. These are extreme and rare cases though. In general, it’s just uncomfortable and can be compared with a bad hangover. Mild symptoms of altitude sickness are rather called acute mountain sickness and this is what most of us feel when we get to higher altitudes.
There is really no way of knowing how your body will react to being in altitude. Your body’s reaction has nothing to do with its physical condition and shape. That’s why it is important to come prepared and know how to deal with the symptoms when they come. Statistically, 20% of us will start to feel symptoms of altitude sickness or AMS, at 2500 meters above the sea. At 3000 meters above the sea, 40% of us will usually feel symptoms of acute mountain sickness.
You usually get altitude sickness if you ascent too rapidly so that your body doesn’t have time to adjust to the difference in air pressure and oxygen percentage in the air.
Here are some tips to prevent altitude sickness.
Altitude sickness symptoms:
Most of us will feel some of the symptoms of acute mountain sickness on our body when we travel in altitude. Underneath are the most normal symptoms listed.
- Shortness of breath
- Lack of energy, feeling tired
- Feeling nauseous, vomiting
- Lack of appetite
Serious cases of altitude sickness
A serious case of altitude sickness is what we call high-altitude pulmonary edema, this form of altitude sickness is rear but is recognizable as fluid gathers in your lungs. but very serious and life-threatening.
- confusion, disorientation, unable to walk straight
- shortness of breath while resting
- chest tightness
- difficulty to perform activities and exercise
- accumulation of fluids in the lungs, coughing and crackles while breathing
- Blue tone to skin
- rapid breathing and heart rate
Another type of altitude sickness is high altitude cerebral edema, this term is used when you get fluid into your brain and is knowns as the most severe form of elevation sickness.
As mentioned, when it comes to altitude sickness it’s pretty much impossible to know how your body will react beforehand. Age, physical shape, and sex don’t play into account in how your body reacts to altitude.
Here at about 4600 m above the sea. Visiting the incredible El Hornocal in the north of Argentina! Also, check out my amazing, water and windproof jacket, from Helly Hansen. It even folds together in one of the pockets, so its perfect for us lightweight travelers.
Some of my experiences with altitude
So, after my experience, when the altitude gets to around 3500 or higher I start to notice the symptoms. Usually, it’s just harder to move, walking up stairs will leave you out of breath. Getting a light headache from time to time is normal, and overall I will feel more tired. This will, as mentioned be different from person to person, so even though I feel symptoms at this altitude, some people feel it earlier and some on even higher altitude.
Hiking in altitude
My first time experiencing real symptoms of high altitude was on a volcano hike in Antigua, Guatemala. We hiked a volcano, where we spent the night on the volcano and hiked to the top for sunrise. The top of Acatenango volcano is 4600 meters, and it was the highest I’d ever been at the time. I felt out of breath even when my legs didn’t feel tired(although they got really tired after a while too). I didn’t really feel highly during our two-day hike, even though we where it a lot of activity and during the night I got a headache. Before my hike, I was somehow prepared for how it would be to spend time in altitude, but it was something different to feel it on my body first hand.
At the top of Volcano Acatenango for Sunrise, 4600m above the sea
Spending time in a high elevated city
I spent 2 months volunteering in Cusco in Peru, although this city is not as elevated as La Paz in Bolivia it’s not far behind with an elevation of 3 399 meters. I did feel the same kind of symptoms as when hiking, but when I spent longer time in Cusco I have to say that the symptom that was most noticeable for me in the day to day life, was the lack of energy. During my time there I always felt tired. Other than that, walking up a couple of stairs could make me out of breath.
How to prepare for high altitude
In altitude sickness treatment it is important to listen to your body and try to give it what it needs. Here are some altitude sickness prevention tips it can be nice to apply while you find yourself in altitude.
How to prevent altitude sickness naturally
- Take time to acclimatize. One of the natural ways to prevent altitude sickness is to take time to acclimatize. That means that if you take the bus or fly into an area located in altitude, you should give your body a couple of days to adjust to the elevation. A typical example from my travels is, taking the bus directly from Lima, at sea level, to Cusco at about 3400 meters elevation.
- If you want to avoid getting altitude sickness, it is recommended to only increase the elevation level with about 300 meters per day. That way your body has time to adjust to the altitude. To prepare for high altitude travel you should also make sure your body is in good shape, well rested, hydrated and energized.
- Descend to a lower elevation! If you get really sick and start vomiting and showing stronger signs of altitude sickness, you should try to go back to a lower altitude. If that’s not an option you have to get a hold of an oxygen tank and breath concentrated oxygen. Definitely contact a doctor in that case.
- A friend of mine got really sick while we were on a three day trip through Uyuni in Bolivia. We were in the middle of nowhere at about 5000 meters elevation. It was in the middle of the night when he got really sick and there was no other option other than to get a hold of an oxygen tank so that he could breathe some oxygen.
- Over the counter altitude medication – In South America, you can get over the counter medicine against altitude sickness. If you know you will be spending time in altitude, you can also get your doctor to prescribe you altitude medicine before you start your trip. There are various medicines that are proven to increase the blood oxygen level. Still, medication doesn’t come without side effects and the most recommendable thing to do is to ascend slowly and get down to a lower altitude if you start to feel really bad.
One of the beautiful lagoons we visited during our travels through Uyuni in Bolivia where we spent time on up to 5000 meters elevation[/caption]
Natural remedies for altitude sickness
- Stay hydrated – Drink lots of water
- Remember that your body doesn’t feel hunger the same way, EAT. Especially if you’re doing any physical activities, like hiking.
- Drink coca tea or, especially when hiking, chew coca leaves (like the locals). You’ll see locals with a huge bump in their cheek. They chew on coca leaves through the day, especially to make physical activity easier. This is definitely what I would call the most popular of herbal remedies for altitude sickness in South America.
Like you can see from the list above, there are mostly natural altitude sickness remedies. As long as your symptoms aren’t acute, the best way to treat altitude sickness is naturally.
All in all, being in high altitude is a really strange and fascinating experience. Turning around in my hostel bed in La Paz, I even noticed a significant change, like a little pressure on my chest. If you follow these tips on how to treat altitude sickness naturally and listen to your body, you’ll be fine, and most likely see some amazing sights on your way too!