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Altitude Sickness Symptoms

by David Schneider
(Los Organos, Piura, Peru)

Not as high as El Alto Int Airport in Bolivia, the airport in Cuzco, Peru still demands respect. At aound 3,400 m (11,200 ft ), you will definitely notice the rarified atmosphere.

Not as high as El Alto Int Airport in Bolivia, the airport in Cuzco, Peru still demands respect. At aound 3,400 m (11,200 ft ), you will definitely notice the rarified atmosphere.

Don't Be A Victim - You Must Know the Following Symptoms and Prevention of Altitude Sickness

From News Headlines...

Peru Hike Death: Katrina Jacks Dies After Suffering Altitude...

Sky News - Jun 1, 2010
A 23-year-old woman who won a silver medal rowing for Wales at the sport's Commonwealth Games equivalent has died in Peru of suspected altitude sickness...

IIM Calcutta student dies on Dzongri trail
?Calcutta Telegraph - Bijoy Gurung - Oct 7, 2011
Prima facie, the reason for his death seems to be altitude sickness. ... A 69-year-old American trekker had died of altitude sickness on the Dzongri trail...

What is Altitude Sickness?

The higher you go above sea level, the less oxygen there is around you. So taking a deep breath may only give you the same amount of oxygen as a shallow breath at the altitude you are used to living.

Regular breathing doesn't provide you with enough oxygen, and your body doesn't realize this until you have spent some hours in the low-oxygen air. After a number of hours, your body begins to automatically breathe deeper, and this helps avoid symptoms.

Altitude sickness can be dangerous and, occasionally fatal if one attempts to go too high without acclimating - or, in the case of very high altitudes, like climbing Everest, not using an oxygen tank.

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The Coca Leaf Plant - Ancient Remedy for Altitude Sickness

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A more common problem is not altitude sickness in itself; people who are already having trouble with a respiratory illness may never be able to acclimate. A heart attack or stroke may occur.

Altitude Sickness Symptoms

Symptoms of altitude sickness (soroche) from mild to severe:
  • Dizziness - Almost everyone feels a little dizzy when suddenly going to an altitude above 6,000 - 8,000 feet; and likely anyone will notice some symptoms of altitude sickness when you step off a plane in Cusco at 11,200 feet of altitude.

  • Headache - Headaches are a very common symptom of altitude. Most travelers experience a headache at altitude for a few hours.

  • Shortness of breath is a common symptom.

  • Weakness and tiredness may be an indication that your are having altitude sickness symptoms.

  • Sick to the stomach - Yuck. 

  • Dizzy and kind of like seasick - food does not sound appealing.

  • Not able to sleep - This is a less common altitude sickness symptom but still is a problem for many.

  • Ataxia - Lips turn bluish and other symptoms of lack of oxygen can be present.

  • Confusion - If you are experiencing the above symptoms as well as noticeable confusion, you should see a doctor for advice.

Prevention of Altitude Sickness

To prevent altitude sickness, some tips are:
  • Spend some time at a lower elevation before going to your high-altitude destination. 
  1. This isn't always possible, such as flying from Lima into Juliaca or Cusco. 
  2. Airliners have pressurized air with normal oxygen content. There is a drastic change when the doors are popped open. Hold on when walking down the steps.
  • Take a bus - the slow rate of climb from near sea level gradually into the mountains allows your body to adjust to a large extent.

  • Medication for altitude sickness may help (see below). If you are in good physical conditioning, you won't have as much trouble as someone who lives a sedentary lifestyle.

  • Drink a lot of fluids. Avoid alcohol unless you like getting dizzy and upchucking - at least for the first day or so.

  • Eat small amounts of food throughout the day rather than big meals. Some people feel better drinking carbonated water, but that is just hearsay.

  • Drink coca leaf tea - the ancient remedy for altitude sickness. It has worked pretty well for our family.

Important altitude sickness prevention tip -

Always consult a doctor if you have any problems of high blood pressure, respiration, or other debilities that could possible be accentuated by lack of oxygen.


Altitude Sickness Medication

  • For headache, take what you normally would - aspirin, acetaminophen or whatever.

  • Get some Diamox* (generic is acetazolamide) from your doctor. He may also prescribe you Procardia (nifedipine) or dexamethasone for altitude sickness medication. These generally stabilize your heartbeat.

If you don't take it with you, you can usually get these drugs over the counter in Peru, but be sure you get advice as well as the dosage from the pharmacist at "la farmacia."
Recommended altitude sickness medication: Acetazolamide, sold under the trade name Diamox*.

This is a carbonic anhydrase inhibitor that is used to treat a number of different illnesses, one of which is altitude sickness.
Acetazolamide is available as a generic drug and is also a diuretic, so you will need to use the bathroom often, especially if you follow the tip to drink more liquids.

* NOTE: Wife (Lin) says that Diamox itself made her "sicker than a dog," so if you plan on using Diamox or acetazolamide, take a dose before you begin your travels to make sure that you don't react badly to the medicine itself.

As an alternative, you might find a natural altitude sickness supplement effective.

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