7 Tips to Avoid Altitude Sickness
I am 6 days into my 28 days of my Peru trip! If you’ve been keeping up with my travels from my IG stories, you’ve probably heard me sound a little out of breath while talking in my videos or saying I’m holding off on working out for now. This will explain why. Before coming to Peru, my intern facilities made sure to inform me that I would have to acclimate to the altitude difference I would experience. While I made sure to do some research beforehand, there's truly no way to know how it will specifically effect you. I am going to update this blog post throughout my stay to keep you all updated on how my acclimation goes and even if it ever reverts.
When I first got here, I did not notice the effects immediately. I won't even say I have truly experienced altitude sickness (and I hope I don't), but I have experienced some of the signs. I noticed them most when I laid down to go to sleep the first 2 or 3 nights, because my heart would race and my breathing shallowed. Throughout my first two days I experienced slight headaches or shortness of breath, especially if I hadn‘t been drinking water like I should. After those first two days, I truly didn't experience this anymore. Don't take these signs lightly. Follow these tips so there's nothing standing in your way of some of the most adventurous times of your life!
1. DRINK WATER!
As I just mentioned, symptoms worsen when dehydrated. Make sure to have water with you at all times. It'll be your new best friend.
2. Give Yourself Time to Acclimate
You my not be on your trip long so you want to get started the moment you land. WAIT. It'll do your body a ton of good. If you don't think you have enough time to accommodate 48 hours to acclimating, PLEASE at the minimum give yourself 24 hours.
3. Avoid Alcohol
Think about it ... Tip 1 is avoid dehydration. Alcohol makes you dehydrated, therefore its best to avoid it. If you want to add it into the mix, I suggest the same protocol in Tip 2 - wait at least 48 hours. Period.
4. Eat Carbs
There is not one place I have gone on this trip and haven't brought snacks with me. Eating foods that are high in carbohydrates have been proven to help with prevention.
5. Drink Coca Tea
I was a skeptic about this at first. I like knowing things are scientifically proven and I just could not find the data to support this ... but then I tried it anyway. Now I am a die hard coca tea believer. You can either chew on the leaves or drink it as a tea. I've continued to drink it periodically whenever I feel a little under the weather.
* Personally, I am the kind of person that prefers to steer away from medications. All of the tips listed above are the tools I have used to comfortably acclimate to the altitude. If you are open to trying medications, those tips will be listed below. I am letting it be know that I am not a physician, but these are tips I have researched, were recommended to me by my intern locations and have seen used by fellow interns and volunteers. If you have a trip coming up in a high altitude, please consult with your physician beforehand to find the best methods for you.
6. Take acetaminophen (Tylenol) for headaches
This is something you would typically do if you were experiencing a headache at home. This will not prevent altitude sickness but it will help with that specific symptom.
7. Take Acetazolamide (Diamox)
This is an actual prevention method that was given to me by my first location, CerviCusco. It is a prescribed drug in the States, so you will have to talk to your physician before leaving if you want to try this method. The recommendation is taking this 2 times a day, 2 days before you're flight and continue to take it for your first 2 days in the elevated location.
Let's put this in perspective
As a reference, I have lived in North Atlanta for the majority of my life which sits about 1,050 feet above mean sea level. I recently made the big move to Miami which only sits a whooping 24 feet above sea level. Currently in Cusco, Peru, I am 11,150 feet above sea level! Do you understand the enormous difference now?
I am going to try to explain how this effects your body in the simplest scientific fashion I possibly can. Here we go! So when people say "The air is thinner up here," its not like the air is "thicker" like a bowl of oatmeal at lower altitudes. What it means is although the percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere is the same, the thinner air means there is LESS oxygen to breathe. Less oxygen means your body has to breathe MORE to get the same amount you typically need. This also means it's literally more difficult to pull in the "thinner" air. Not only that, its more difficult for your veins to pump oxygen throughout the body. Are you still with me? So simple tasks, such as walking up stairs turns into a laborious task.
Be aware of the signs
The signs, while they might not happen in this exact order, are what you should be on the lookout for:
- shortness of breath
- loss of appetite
- nausea and vomiting
After nausea and vomiting, symptoms can become far more life threatening and may include seizures. Get to a lower elevation as soon as possible.
The Real Spill
Here's the real about my altitude sickness. I didn't experience altitude sickness when I started to write this blog post. I had a few symptoms here and there but not the full blown thing. A few days into writing it, -ish got real. I hiked to a location in Peru called Cristo Blanco which is about 11,800 feet above sea level. This was on Friday. I didn't feel like I was over exerting myself or that I was dehydrated at the time either. Before the night was even over, I had a pounding headache, but my oxygen levels weren't too low (in the 80s). Saturday morning was hell. I woke up out of my sleep with a pacing heart rate, nauseous, coughing my life away and my head still banging. I am the biggest wimp when it comes to headaches because I've been blessed with truly not getting them often at all. I was put on two rounds of oxygen, 15 minutes each. The moment I came off the oxygen, my headaches would intensify. All I could do was lay in bed and drink water. I had 0 appetite and didn't eat anything until about 9pm. I woke up the next morning at 4:30am to go on an even higher hike to Rainbow Mountain. What’s wrong with me? I know. Even though Rainbow is much higher than Cristo Blanco, I followed my tips in this guide and it honestly helped me. Rainbow Mountain is about 16,000 feet above sea level. These are the differences I made. I made sure to eat before the hike and drank coca tea. I did not try any altitude medications. I made sure to stop when I felt out of breath and didn't try to over exert myself. I drank SO MUCH water from the time I woke up and continuously throughout the hike. Something that really made a difference was this aroma concoction that the tour guides had. It was a liquid you put in the palm of your hands and smelled. It was like an instant wake up when you smelled it. If I can find the name of the solution I will update this blog in the future with it. When I got down the mountain I still had to have some oxygen, but not as much as before. I did not feel like I was dying and didn't have much of a headache by the time we got down to a lower elevation at all. My major take aways:
1. Coca works!
2. Drink water, some more water and when you think you've drank enough, drink some more
3. Continue to eat to keep your carb count up
4. Know your limitations. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
It’s important to mention that everyone may not experience altitude sickness or even the signs of it. Personally, I did start to notice some signs but after my second day I no longer did. Don’t get me wrong, if I’m hiking or going up a flight of stairs I definitely feel more winded than I would back home. It’s apart of the territory, so drink your water and pace yourself you’re in for an amazing trip! Don’t end up like me, be better than me!
Until next time, start trippin’!