Altitude Sickness – What It Is and What to Do When You Get It

Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

“Altitude sickness hits many people, it doesn’t matter how physically fit you are.

I wrote another blog post about my adventures with altitude sickness in the Atacama Desert in Chile. Since then, I went on to Peru, and when I learned that Cusco was “only” 3,800 meters (about 12,500 feet) high, which would be, I thought, the highest point I’d get to, and it was lower than the 4,100 meters I reached in Chile, I decided I’d be fine! My logic was, “if I survived that high in Chile, I will survive that high in Peru!” It was slightly faulty logic.

An active volcano you see from almost 5,000 meters above sea level.

Photograph by Heather Markel. Copyright 2019

It turns out that altitude sickness is NOT cumulative, after all. Once you adapt back down to sea level, you have to start all over again. All that adjustment for nothing, and, just because you went up high within the past month or two does not make the symptoms any better! Also, NO, flying does not make you immune to altitude sickness because the cabin is pressurized. Nice try though.

“You don’t need prescription drugs, there are so many other options!”

The Symptoms – What Altitude Sickness Is

As you go higher and higher, the air gets thinner. As the air thins, obviously this impacts how much air your lungs take in with each breath. I think some organ compression goes on too, but, here is a list of possible common reactions you may have. They are not life threatening, but they are super annoying:

  • get winded after a few steps, or trying to walk uphill. You can be an athlete and feel really silly because you find yourself out of breath so quickly.
  • have horrible headaches. These, for me, were some of the worst symptoms. You’ll feel tired, ache-y, and the darn headache just doesn’t go away, really affects the day
  • neaseau and vomiting, possibly gassy. I think the worst part is feeling like you have to vomit, but it doesn’t happen. This can last too long for comfort.
  • bloody nose. If you don’t get a bloody nose, you still might find blood when you blow your nose. It’s all part of the deal, nothing to worry about.

Another reason to brave altitude sickness – seeing condors.

Photograph by Heather Markel. Copyright 2019

What To Do About It

I was intent on avoiding prescription medication. This may or may not have made my struggle with altitude sickness worse, but hey, I survived!

Here are some things you can do to help avoid the sickness:

  • Sleep. Especially if you have those headaches, sleep is a great reliever!
  • Take it slow. If you can, don’t do those crazy hikes the day after you arrive in Cusco. Build in at least 3 – 4 days to adapt, better yet, a week. See how you respond to the altitude because everyone is different. Even people that told me they expected to have no symptoms did have trouble breathing at some point.
  • Watch what you eat. Having a full stomach is not good in high altitude, especially when you feel neausous. Eat smaller meals, and, ideally, avoid red meat and other foods that are heavy and greasy.
  • Avoid alcohol. Even if you’re having a good day, drink a little alcohol, and the symptoms may hit you. You may also find yourself tipsy much faster than usual.

Things you can ingest to deal with the altitude sickness once you get it:

  • Diamox. This is the prescription medication. I’ve heard it works really well. Some people do get tingly fingers and lose ability to taste certain things while on the medication.
  • Coca leaves / Coca tea. This is advised throughout Peru, and some places in Chile. I was never able to properly chew them – the leaves quickly disintegrated in my mouth (not to mention the rolling of it is a bit complicated) and I was told not to swallow them, so gave up. The tea was nice (unless you don’t like the taste, in which case you can add Stevia, easy to find locally.) Unfortunately, I didn’t find this helped much, and was told it’s because you need to chew a lot of the leaves, or drink a lot of tea for relief to last more than a few minutes
  • Muna leaf tea. This helps with breathing. I can’t tell you it helped with the headaches, but I did feel a little better.
  • Agua de Florida. You can find this in Peru – rub some in your hands and INHALE DEEP several times. Definitely helps the headache go away, but not a permanent fix either. DO NOT SWALLOW IT!
  • Alti Vital. This was by far my favorite! It’s entirely herbal, so no side effects or drug interactions. 🙂 Take 2, three times a day, with food. I found they alleviated my symptoms for at least a good hour when they were at their worst, and lasted longer as I acclimated. You can buy them in any pharmacy in Peru.
  • Excedrin / Tylenol. Has limited impact, but if you’re taking the Alti Vital, you might combine with one of these if your symptoms are really bad.
  • Chachacoma. This is another herb, found more in the Atacama. I mentioned it in my last blog post. It helped me a lot with headaches, and is also herbal. I’ve used it since, just for headaches, and sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. So it may be specific for headaches from the high altitude.
  • Garlic tablets / “pastillos de ajo” – I liked these as well. You will have garlic breath, but take one three times a day with food, and, at the very least, you may be able to breathe easier. I found them in Purmamarca, Argentina, and another brand in Salta, Argentina.

While altitude sickness is not likely to kill you, it can be really awful to experience, and last a long time. If you take something like Diamox, you’re more likely to be able to race off a plane and into activities, but at the cost of various side effects, which could include an upset stomach. If you have more time to acclimate and/or don’t like prescription drugs, any of the herbal remedies I mentioned are great to help you deal with the symptoms. In Peru, I combined the Alti Vital with Agua de Florida and Tylenol/Excedrin and drank either muna or coca tea throughout the day. Everything gave me relief, for a while, and then there was sleep. 🙂 Colca Canyon, which involved going up to 4,910 meters, was rough, and if I had gone to Rainbow Mountain (5,000  meters) I suspect I would not have felt well either, but it’s beautiful. Do your research on altitudes before you go, and if you have no idea if you are someone that will have issues, just arm yourself with remedies and enjoy the views! One thing you typially find in higher altitudes is fabulous blue skies and crisp air.

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