What you’ll learn in this article:
- What is Altitude Sickness
- How and where can I get Altitude Sickness
- How can I prevent Altitude Sickness
- How can I deal with Altitude Sickness if I get it
I have been traveling to high-altitude locations throughout the world for more than 20 years. The highest point which I have hiked is 19,000ft (5800m) and I have spent a lot of time at altitudes over 10,000ft (3000m) in locations like Nepal, Ladakh, Bhutan, Peru, Ecuador, etc. Through our travel company I have brought many guests over the past ten years to Ladakh where we have visited points from 10,500ft (3200m) to 17,600ft (5360m). I have learned the most effective techniques for helping people avoid the symptoms of Altitude Sickness at those heights. This short article is meant to help those that travel to altitudes between 8,000ft to 13,000ft (2500m to 4000m).
Symptoms of Altitude Sickness
Though most people can visit altitudes of 8,000ft (2500m) with no ill effects, there are some people that start feeling sick after reaching 5,000ft (1500m). After 8,000ft, however, many people can start feeling the effects. Those symptoms include:
- Loss of appetite
- Fatigue/loss of energy
- Frequent urination
Prevention of Altitude Sickness
If you were hiking to higher altitudes, I’d discuss your plan for a slow ascent. Typically, you would not increase your sleeping altitude more than 1600 feet (500 meters) per day as you go higher. Plan a day of rest for every 3200 feet (1000 meters) you ascend. Most of you will be arriving to your high-altitude destination by flight, so I will focus on what you should do to prepare and after you arrive.
- Start taking ibuprofen 24 hours before your flight. Take doses as stated on the bottle (as though you had a headache). You can continue taking the pills as stated on the bottle for 24-48 hours after you arrive. Ibuprofen was found to significantly reduce the incidence of altitude sickness in a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of 86 men and women, according to the study, published online March 20, 2012 in Annals of Emergency Medicine.
- Starting before your flight, stay hydrated. Most high-altitude locations are very dry and your body rapidly becomes dehydrated. You should drink 2-3 liters of water per day and limit your caffeine and alcohol consumption. Some people, however, over-hydrate and drink too much water–so drink water, but don’t overdo it.
- For your first 24 hours, don’t exert yourself. Rest, relax, and don’t do much of anything. Seriously! It might be the most important thing you can do to prevent symptoms of AMS.
- Some types of food can help you. Carbohydrate rich foods and foods that are high in potassium such as legumes; dark-leafy-greens; baked potatoes with skin; dried apricots; yogurt; avocados; salmon; bananas; broccoli; dark chocolate; and tomatoes. The mechanism here is that potassium drives sodium out of the body, and with it, excess fluid. Be sure to limit your salt intake. Don’t eat too much at night as digestion slows at altitude.
75% of people have mild symptoms of AMS over 10,000 feet. “Mild AMS does not interfere with normal activity and symptoms generally subside within two to four days as the body acclimatizes.” If, however, you begin to have moderate or severe symptoms and normal activity is difficult, please see a doctor immediately. The only sure relief of symptoms at this stage is to go to a lower altitude. Certain medications, supplemental oxygen, and hyperbaric chambers (and Gamow bags) that can relieve symptoms temporarily–but definitely see a physician!
Checking Yourself (and Others) for Altitude Sickness
One of the benefits of group travel to a high-altitude destination is that you have other sets of eyes keeping a helpful watch on you. However, there is a helpful way to assess yourself (or others) if you are traveling solo: the Lake Louise Score (LLS) for the diagnosis of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), for yourself or on others. You can find a link to this PDF scoresheet here.
*All of the information here is for reference purposes only and is not intended to substitute for advice from a licensed health care professional. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any health condition or disease. If you are experiencing medical issues, you should contact your medical healthcare provider.
Here is a list of some popular high-altitude destinations worldwide!
- Puno [Lake Titicaca], Peru = 12,556 feet (3,830m)
- Lhasa, Tibet = 12,002 feet (3,658m)
- La Paz, Bolivia = 11,942 feet (3640m)
- Leh, Ladakh, India = 11,500 feet (3,500m)
- Cusco, Peru (aka Cuzco) = 11,152 feet (3399m)
- Tiger’s Nest (Paro Taktsang), Bhutan = 10,232 feet (3118m)
- Breckenridge, Col, USA = 9,600 ft (2,926m)
- Quito, Ecuador = 9,350 feet (2,850m)
- Telluride, Col, USA = 8,750 ft (2,667m)
- Cuenca, Ecuador = 8,366 feet (2,550m)
- Machu Picchu, Peru = 7,970 feet (2430m)
- Sugarloaf, Col, USA = 7,842 ft (2,390m)
- Thimphu, Bhutan = 7,656 feet (2320m)
- Mexico City, Mexico = 7,380 feet (2250m)
- Shimla, India = 7,234 feet (2,205m)
- Kathmandu, Nepal = 4,600 feet (1,400m)
- Kala Patthar (Everest Region) of Nepal = 18,519 feet (5645m)
- Everest Base Camp = 17,598 feet (5364m)
- Annapurna Sanctuary & Base Camp, Nepal = 13,550 feet (4130m)
- Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania = 19,341 feet (5,895m)