Altitude sickness (or acute mountain sickness) is an illness caused by reduced air pressure and lower oxygen levels at high altitudes, and it affects outdoor sports enthusiasts (like skiers and mountain climbers) and travelers visiting high altitude destinations. But it can be prevented and it’s no reason to be afraid to visit the mountain destination of your dreams!
Enjoy the view from Machu Picchu Mountain (over 10,000 feet) but don’t get sick!
Kevin and I have done some pretty high altitude travel this year. The altitude in Cusco, Peru is 11,200 ft (3,400 m). The altitude at the summit of Keystone Mountain, CO is 12,408 ft (3,782 m). The altitude of Quito, Ecuador is 9,350 ft (2,850 m). We’ve definitely felt the effects of high altitude–feeling fatigued and tired when walking around. But since we have been careful not to get sick, I wanted to share some tips we have learned how to prevent altitude sickness and stay healthy when traveling to high elevation.
1. Know the symptoms before you go:
The symptoms of altitude sickness include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Dizziness or light-headedness
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea or vomiting
- Rapid pulse (heart rate)
- Shortness of breath with exertion
2. Ascend gradually, and give yourself time to adapt:
Take it slow, if you can avoid flying into a high altitude city and are able to go by land, go ahead and do that. Taking a bus ride, rising gradually in elevation over several hours is easier on the body than arriving there by plane. Also rising gradually from sea level is easier when you go in steps, so if you are going from sea level to skiing in a high mountain resort in Colorado (10,000+ feet), plan to spend a night or two in Denver (5,280 feet) before heading up further into the mountain resorts.
In any case, take it easy the first day, don’t plan anything strenuous. When we flew into Cusco, Peru we didn’t do anything that day besides walking to the Inca Rail office, a few blocks from our guesthouse, to buy our train ticket to Macchu Pichu. After that, we ate lunch at a nearby restaurant and went back to the room to sleep out the rest of the day.
If you are having any symptoms, stay where you are and don’t go any higher until the symptoms go away.
Drinking herbal tea and eating hydrating, vegetable soups.
3. Drink a lot of water before and during your trip.
Dehydration exacerbates altitude sickness so be sure you are drinking lots and LOTS of water, juices, and herbal teas, starting a few days before you arrive. Stay away from really dehydrating beverages like coffee, black tea, maybe most importantly…
4. Stay away from alcohol
As much as you may want to hit the bar for a beer or wine to celebrate your arrival at your destination, don’t do it. And as attractive as those Colorado microbrews or Peruvian pisco sours are, this can be really challenging! When we were in Cusco, we chose to not drink any alcoholic beverages the day before or first few days of our trip. More than anything, Kevin credits this with helping us come through unscathed.
5. Eat light meals with carbohydrates
The owner of the restaurant we went to in Cusco recommended we not get anything heavy and difficult to digest on our first day. We ordered soups, herbal tea, and a light (not greasy) fried rice dish.
In Peru, coca leaves are traditionally used to alleviate altitude sickness.
6. Take over-the-counter and herbal remedies
Ibuprofen, aspirin, or acetaminophen can help ease a headache.
If you are in South America the often recommended remedy is to use coca leaves (either chewed or infused as herbal tea). You’ll find commercial bagged coca tea at almost every restaurant or your hotel may have the leaves out for making tea at breakfast. You can also buy the leaves in local markets. We found them at the central market in Cusco Peru.
A Peruvian restaurant owner recommended we not overdo the coca tea and said that it’s mostly dehydrating. It tastes terrible, too! So we limited ourselves to one cup in the morning.
A friend of mine uses aspirin before ascending as prophylaxis, but I would talk to a doctor about the dosage and risks.
7. See a doctor if your symptoms worsen or you have any questions:
Altitude sickness can be very serious or even fatal, but fortunately, doctors in mountain areas are very familiar with the condition and treat travelers all the time. Any hotel or hostel can point you toward a local doctor–our hostel in Cusco had fliers on the front desk advertising a nearby travel clinic. So don’t hesitate to ask if you have any concern about the symptoms you are experiencing.