You know what you should never do? You should never go from sea level to nearly 15,000ft in elevation in the span of 5 hours. You will regret it.
One thing I didn’t mention in my Peruvian misadventures post was my encounter with altitude sickness. When it comes to altitude sickness, you tend to only have it once…because once you’ve had it, you will NEVER let yourself endure it again.
When I finally found my friends in Urubamba (after my gauntlet of travel to get to them), they were in the middle of a tour of the Peruvian Sacred Valley. We drove around the countryside visiting local ruins and culturally relevant city centers. I even bought a handmade alpaca sweater! It was awesome! …until we arrived back at the AirBnB for dinner. Our host was making stone fire pizza, but I never got to enjoy any of it. I threw my backpack on my bed, laid down to rest, and within minutes was in the throws of altitude sickness.
If you’ve never experienced altitude sickness, it’s like having a hangover…only way worse. And there is no amount of Gatorade is going to help you. And at nearly 12,000ft, all I could do was take some Diamox (altitude sickness medication bummed off a friend), drink any water I could keep down, and sleep.
Pounding headache. Nausea. Dizziness. It wouldn’t end…
I think I slept 12 hours that night, only finding relief when I finally woke up the next morning. I took a few days to adjust, during which my greatest fear was the possibility of it hitting me again on the trail. Luckily, it did not.
Don’t be like me. Don’t let altitude sickness steal time away from your adventures!
What is Altitude Sickness?
Altitude Sickness, also called “acute mountain sickness,” tends to occur within a few hours of traveling to higher altitudes. Symptoms include: fatigue, loss of appetite, sleepiness, nausea or vomiting, rapid breathing or shortness of breath, fast heart rate, headache, and dehydration.
Mild cases may resolve in one to three days, whereas severe cases can require oxygen, medications, and moving to a lower altitude.
What is High Altitude?
|High||8,000 to 13,000 feet|
|Very High||13,000 to 18,000 feet|
|Extremely High||over 18,000 feet|
How do you treat it?
The best thing you can do is go to a lower altitude.
But that option is not always so easy. In my case, I had nowhere lower to go, so I turned to my handy bag of medication. Over the counter painkillers like ibuprofen will help reduce the severity of some of your symptoms, as well as drinking as much water as you possibly can.
You’ll also want the most tried and true drug for altitude sickness, Acetazolamide (or Diamox). If I had been smart, I would have been taking this before even getting to Peru in order to prepare. But no, I thought I was too good for altitude sickness so I didn’t have any with me at all…. Thank goodness for better-prepared friends!
The great thing about Acetazolamide is that it actually prevents AND treats the problem. It works by increasing the amount of alkali (bicarbonate) excreted in the urine, making the blood more acidic. Acidifying the blood drives the ventilation, which helps with acclimatization.
Usually, in the US, you’ll need a prescription, but in Peru, I was able to get it over the counter under its generic name (just look for the active ingredient: Acetazolamide). Cheap, too! It’s like they’ve encountered this problem before or something…
Prevent Altitude Sickness
For prevention, take 125 to 250mg of Acetazolamide twice daily starting one or two days before, and then continuing for three days once the highest altitude is reached. Note: Blood concentrations of acetazolamide peak between one to four hours after administration of the tablets. (source)
More GREAT tips from the Travel Doctor on how to avoid the horrors of Altitude Sickness:
- If possible, don’t fly or drive to high altitude. Start below 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) and walk up.
- If you do fly or drive, do not overexert yourself or move higher for the first 24 hours.
- If you go above 3,000 meters (10,000 feet), only increase your altitude by 300 meters (1,000 feet) per day, and for every 900 meters (3,000 feet) of elevation gained, take a rest day to acclimatize.
- Climb high and sleep low! You can climb more than 300 meters (1,000 feet) in a day as long as you come back down and sleep at a lower altitude.
- If you begin to show symptoms of moderate altitude sickness, don’t go higher until symptoms decrease.
- If symptoms increase, go down, down, down!
- Keep in mind that different people will acclimatize at different rates. Make sure everyone in your party is properly acclimatized before going any higher.
- Stay properly hydrated. Acclimatization is often accompanied by fluid loss, so you need to drink lots of fluids to remain properly hydrated (at least four to six liters per day). Urine output should be copious and clear to pale yellow.
- Take it easy and don’t overexert yourself when you first get up to altitude. But, light activity during the day is better than sleeping because respiration decreases during sleep, exacerbating the symptoms.
- Avoid tobacco, alcohol and other depressant drugs including, barbiturates, tranquilizers, sleeping pills and opiates such as dihydrocodeine. These further decrease the respiratory drive during sleep resulting in a worsening of symptoms.
- Eat a high calorie diet while at altitude.
- Remember: Acclimatization is inhibited by overexertion, dehydration, and alcohol.
Please, don’t be like me. Don’t think your “Rocky Mountain Blood” will save you. Altitude sickness can affect anyone, regardless of age or physical health. Take it easy, take precautions and don’t let this stupid and preventable experience steal time away from your hard-earned travels!