Altitude Sickness

Altitude Sickness

October 25, 2010

Few sites in the world can match the beauty of the Andes mountains.  The snow-capped peaks, the green terraced hillsides, the ancient ruins and peaceful villages – it’s breathtaking.  Really breathtaking.  As in – I can’t breathe!

Most visitors to the Andes regions will experience some degree of difficulty with the altitude.  This may be a simple as feeling slightly tired and out of breath, to rare but potentially fatal high altitude pulmonary or cerebral edema.  It can affect anyone, and there is no reliable way to predict who will develop it.  It has nothing to do with overall fitness, body type, or any other clear marker.

Altitude sickness is caused by acute exposure to low partial oxygen pressure at high altitude. It commonly occurs above 8,000 feet, although some people may start to feel it at much lower elevations.  The symptoms resemble  a case of flu, carbon monoxide poisoning, or a hangover.  The number one symptom is a headache.  Other common symptoms include fatigue, weakness, nausea, and vomiting, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, and swelling of the hands and feet. Symptoms usually begin 12-24 hours after arriving at altitude.

If you have recently arrived at a high altitude, and experience any combination of these symptoms, you should probably consider it altitude sickness.

So, what to do?  First of all, rest and drink plenty of fluids.  Give your body a chance to adjust to the altitude.  Don’t try to start hiking the Inca Trail right away – take a day or two to relax.  In a perfect world you would adjust slowly to altitude by climbing gradually to altitude.  In the modern era of jet flights, this isn’t usually possible – most visitors arrive at high altitude directly from sea level.  So, give your body a break and relax for a day or two.

Avoid tobacco and alcohol.  Many people recommend the local Andes remedy, coca tea. Mixed with sugar and a bit of salt, it becomes a sort of makeshift Gatorade (although I used Coca-cola on my 2 year old, and it seemed to work just fine).

Time cures most cases.  Symptoms generally disappear with 24-48 hours, although locals will probably still be able to walk you into the ground (while carrying a heavy load, just to make it even more mortifying).

If symptoms persist, or worsen, seek medical assistance.  You should be monitored to make sure it does not develop into the more severe manifestations.  And ultimately, the best cure of all is descent.

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