Trekking in the Andean Mountains? Learn more about the symptoms of altitude sickness and how to prevent it.
14 February 2019
Whenever you travel to a high-altitude destination, you should always consider how the altitude sickness might affect your body.
In this article, we’ll examine the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and various ways of preventing it.
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) or altitude sickness, also known in Peru as soroche, happens to some people who travel to higher altitudes. Air pressure at high altitude is lower, and there is less oxygen available for the body to function, sometimes resulting in symptoms that can be uncomfortable, and very occasionally dangerous.
Altitude sickness can occur above 8,000 feet above sea level (2,500 meters). The human body does get used to these conditions, but it needs time to adapt, which is why the first hours or days are the crucial ones.
Upon arrival in Cusco at 11,000 ft. (3,300 m.) some people feel a slight dizziness, and most have little or no problem adapting to higher altitude after a day or two. However, for a small number of people adaptation is more difficult, and thus can require more time and preventative measures.
Symptoms of altitude sickness
Symptoms of soroche vary from person to person but generally include headache, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, loss of energy, sleep deprivation and loss of appetite.
These symptoms are usually felt within 12 to 14 hours after reaching high altitude and can last for a day or two as the body adapts.
Tips for preventing altitude sickness
Soroche can take away valuable days of your trip and could even leave you stuck in bed for a day or two. Here are some measures you can take prevent this:
As mentioned, the human body needs a few days to adjust to higher altitudes.
When hiking or trekking, experts suggest ascending gradually and slowly, as this allows the body to acclimatize. They recommend climbing no more than 1,000 feet each day and including a rest day for every 3,000 feet you climb.
But since most people fly or drive directly to a high-altitude location such as Cusco, following our recommendations will likely help you to avoid soroche!
Eating carbohydrates and small meals
At higher altitudes the body burns more calories. If you’re not packing enough caloric energy, symptoms of altitude sickness can appear.
This makes eating carbohydrates a logical choice, since they can supply 15% more energy than fats for absorbing the same amount of oxygen.
However, overeating can also cause digestive discomfort at high altitudes. So, eat just enough! We suggest you strike a nice balance by eating small, carb-based meals for the first few days.
Avoiding alcohol and tobacco
Both can make symptoms of altitude sickness worse. Both affect the level of oxidation in the blood, which is why we recommended first becoming acclimatized before partaking in drinking alcohol or smoking.
Drinking lots of water
Your body, through breathing, loses water vapor at a higher rate at higher altitudes. Dehydration can lead to symptoms of altitude sickness.
Therefore, it’s vitally important to drink plenty of water each day; more water than you would drink normally at lower elevation.
Drinking coca leaf tea also can help, since the alkaloid in the tea allows the body to adapt.
However, it is a stimulant and could keep you from sleeping, so it’s best to drink it in the morning, in limited amounts.
Taking it easy
People get tired faster at higher altitudes due to reduced oxygen levels. It’s best to limit your physical activities for the first couple of days, and avoid any kind of overexertion, as that could easily lead to symptoms of altitude sickness.
Sleeping at high altitude
Many people experience insomnia at higher altitudes. It might take you time to adapt and get a good night’s sleep.
If you do get altitude sickness, it becomes worse during the night, so in that case, experts recommend descending to a lower altitude to sleep better and acclimatize.
While you’ll probably adapt to high altitude without taking any medication, there is evidence that taking acetazolamide (sold under the trade name Diamox) before and during your trip could help prevent altitude sickness.
Acetazolamide is usually used to treat glaucoma, yet, due to the way it works, it can also help with altitude sickness. Consult your doctor before travel, as this is a prescription drug.
It’s impossible to predict how each person will adapt to high altitude, since everyone’s metabolism is different and changes at different times.
Nevertheless, following the tips we’ve listed above is likely to prevent you from having any symptoms of soroche.