Disclaimer: These are pieces of advice based on our experience in the mountains to avoid Altitude Sickness; is not medical advice. Please talk to your doctor about your travel to high altitude. Please do that. We want you to enjoy your holidays and avoid a medical emergency.
If every two steps during a mountain climb you feel like you are running a marathon, you are so out of breath, and you also feel dizziness (even when you are physically active) it’s likely you are higher than 8,000 feet /2500 meters above the sea level, and you got Altitude Sickness.
We have been hiking all the mountains together with many friends since 2009, and unfortunately, we have seen many of them suffer any kind of Altitude Sickness. In this mini-guide, you’ll learn the basics about this Illness.
Years ago, a friend who was trekking with us started to slow down his pace. He felts tired; his head was about to explode. The slippery icy ground, and the steep incline required even more strength he didn’t have.
Later he told us all he wanted was sit down on a rock and sleep; he just wanted to close his eyes. Our guides are trained to help any hiker who feels ill, and they do their best to encourage them. But at that time, Claudio our guide, remembers he was nervous because they needed to go over the pass and down again before the night comes in, but he realized his hiker couldn’t walk anymore, physically he was out.
What is Altitude Sickness?
The formal name of this illness is ACUTE MOUNTAIN SICKNESS (AMS) and happens when someone exposes her/himself in a no gradually way to elevations over 8000 ft/2500 m.a.s.l or more.
The AMS can even get worst. You can get fluid in the lungs also known as High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or swelling of the brain known as High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) where people start to manifest confusion and hallucinations that can be mortal. The HACE occurs when the exposure is for much too long at higher altitudes.
The main symptoms of altitude sickness are shortness of breath, dizziness, weakness, headache, nausea, and vomiting. And can appear from 6 to 24 hours after the first exposure. If you manifest any of these symptoms when you are doing altitude hiking, You should consider totally stop or even get back.
Why does it happen?
Here we get a bit dense, but we need you to understand how dangerous this illness might turns.
The higher you go, the lower the barometric pressure is. This produce diminished inspiratory oxygen pressure (PIO2), meaning less oxygen level to breathe. The body needs to adapt to that before it starts to manifest effects like Organs Hypoxia.
What really happens is:
The breathing rate increase, resulting in hyperventilation, and an increase in the average volume of air in your lungs producing severe hypocapnia, but once you reach 5500m, compensation of the respiratory alkalosis is not possible anymore.
Hypoxia also affects the cardiovascular system. The heart rate and hemoglobin increased.
The Lungs start to present vasoconstriction, and this produces that the pulmonary artery pressure increased. This is the main factor to get HAPE, the next step of the altitude sickness.
How to prevent the Altitude Sickness
This is what we always recommend to our friends:
- Take some time. We know you got no too much time for holidays, but the best altitude sickness prevention is letting the body adapt to the altitude. A couple of days in The Sacred Valley or Cusco will help with the adaptation.
- The Basics. During those days, don’t take long hikes, avoid alcohol and hearty foods. Remember your body need to focus on others main processes.
- Be conscious of your Breathing. Take deep breaths, remember there is less oxygen in the air.
- Keep yourself hydrated. Drink a lot of water. Remember the weather is getting dry as you go higher. And this is also you shouldn’t drink alcohol. Here an excellent thing to drink is coca tea, almost everywhere in Peru you can find it.
- Remedies. There are some remedies you may consider to use but always after ask your doctor. Chlorophyll drops help you to increased the number of red blood cells. They are the one who absorbs oxygen, so if you have more, more the chances to reduce the effects of altitude. You also can use Diamox (acetazolamide) this can have side effects, so it’s not for everybody. And the Ginkgo Biloba extract has been demonstrated to be even more effective than Diamox, and it’s natural.
If you have any heart or lung problems, please don’t do it without a signed letter for your doctors.
Is there any Treatment once you get it?
Once you get AMS, there is not something as a “medicine to cure” it. The immediate action is to get back to a lower altitude, get oxygen and rest. But the best is to follow all the recommendations we have given to you.
You will never forget the views of the peruvian andes; they are breathtaking, literally.