Altitude sickness, also called Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), is the inability of the organism to adapt in high altitudes, called “hypoxia” (lack of oxygen). It can take effect as low as 2,000 m (6,500 feet) and its severity is proportional to the speed of ascent and the altitude reached. Altitude sickness is able to affect anyone and is more frequent in those under 50.
Symptoms of altitude sickness
In the majority of cases, symptoms are mild or moderate, with one or more of the following symptoms:
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea and vomiting
- Fast heart rate, tachycardia
- Sleep disturbance
- Paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea (waking up suddenly with the sensation of choking)
- Digestive diseases
- Loss of appetite
All these symptoms are typical of altitude sickness and should not be a cause of concern.
When do symptoms appear?
Symptoms can quickly appear in less than an hour, the minute you arrive, or it can take several hours. Often, it is during the first night at altitude that one feels uncomfortable.
In some cases, it can take 2 or 3 days to feel the first effects.
What should you do?
Above all, the most important thing is to remain calm. The psychological factor is substantial for the quick disappearance, or conversely the worsening of symptoms. Many travelers become scared when experiencing the first symptoms or become anxious in anticipation after having read or heard about unpleasant experiences of other tourists. Everyone has different reactions to altitude sickness and no one is able to anticipate what you will feel in high altitudes.
The best option is to gradually increase one’s altitude in order to adapt in at least a day (2,500 / 3,000 m – 8,000 to 10,000 ft).
In any event, it is very important to:
- Keeping hydrated (at least 2 liters of water a day).
- Reduce physical exertion the first day.
- Eat in moderation and maintain a diet rich in carbohydrates (bread, cereal, pasta, rice, potatoes, beans).
- The intake of sugar, such as sweets, is definitely recommended.
- Avoid tranquilizers and/or sleeping pills.
Prevention and relief
Can help with headaches, but not always effective at altitude and are totally useless for other symptoms such as nausea, fatigue, digestive problems, etc…
In case of breathing difficulties and general discomfort, oxygen can be requested in most hotels in Peru.
All restaurants and hotels in the Andes offer coca tea, “mate de coca”, with dried leaves or tea bags, to be used as a pain reliever and anesthetic , as well as to regulate the lack of oxygen and blood pressure. You can also experiment with chewing the leaves like the locals.
“Muna tea” is very good for all digestive problems. Local guides usually advise tourist to rub muña branches in their hands and then inhale the aroma to alleviate dizziness.
A compound of plants from the Andes and the Amazon jungle, prepared with coca, muña, ginger and guarana.
This natural product can help you with the main discomforts of altitude, such as headaches, fatigue, nausea and digestive problems.
Severe acute mountain sickness
In serious cases (approximately one in every 5,000 people), a malignant development of altitude sickness can lead to two potentially dangerous sicknesses: pulmonary edema and brain edema. They can be fatal. An early diagnosis (in the first several hours) is very important. They are easy to treat in the initial stages if hospitalized.
High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) is a dangerous accumulation of liquid in the lungs, preventing the aerial cavities from opening and filling with air. The symptoms in which you should see a doctor as soon as possible are:
- Irritating cough
- Foamy phlegm
- Bloody phlegm
- Rigidity or chest tightness
- Noise in the lungs
- Blue skin coloration (cyanosis)
- Impossible to walk or coordinate your movements
- Great difficulty breathing in sleep
- Tachypnea, increasing the breathing rate
High-Altitude Brain Edema (HABE) is an accumulation of liquid in the brain. The symptoms are:
- Headache of great intensity in the nape
- Photophobia (abnormal intolerance to light)
- Motor problems
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