A pounding headache, a lack of energy, nausea – sound familiar? OK, this may sound like a hangover from hell, yet altitude sickness packs a similar punch. Mountaineers dread these dizzying effects. However, you don’t need to climb Mount Everest to experience a mild form. Also known as mountain sickness, this illness is common when on a trip to Peru, Bolivia, Bhutan and other high-altitude countries. But what exactly is altitude sickness?
What is high altitude sickness?
As oxygen gets thinner at high altitudes your lungs have to work harder. Even though your lungs are putting in an extra shift, oxygen levels in your system are still low and muscles start to become fatigued as a result.
After spending a few hours at high altitude, water loss also increases and, if not offset by drinking more fluids, dehydration occurs. Altitude can also increase your metabolism while decreasing your appetite, meaning you’ll have to eat extra calories to maintain your energy levels.
AMS (acute mountain sickness) is the mildest form and is extremely common. Symptoms include vomiting, tiredness, headaches and aching muscles. More serious forms of high altitude sickness can lead to a buildup of fluid on the lungs or brain, and can even be life-threatening.
Who does it affect?
Unlike other illnesses age, sex and general health do not seem to make a difference in risk for altitude sickness. However, people with lung or heart disease should avoid high altitudes. Those usually living at low altitude such as sea level, are also more likely to feel the strain of being high up.
How to combat altitude sickness
The most effective way to avoid altitude sickness is by gradually increasing your altitude. This process, known as acclimatisation, gives your body time to adapt to the lack of oxygen. With this in mind try to avoid arriving directly at high altitudes by flying or driving. Many medics agree that upon reaching 3,000m above sea level, that you should only increase your altitude by 500m every couple of days.
Along with a steady incline, avoid drinking alcohol as it can make symptoms worse. Drink plenty of water and, above all, take it easy; we suggest taking a break when walking every 20 minutes. In addition to this, Andean people advise consuming coca leaves, either chewed directly, or drunk as a tea; most hotels and bars in the Andes stock it for this reason.
Don’t let it stop you
High altitude sickness may seem a bit scary, yet with the correct preparation there’s no need to worry. Feeling ready to drink in the elegance of Bhutan, or discover ancient cities in the clouds?