When planning a vacation, travelers often worry about getting airsick or seasick, and prepare for avoiding water- and food-born sickness abroad. But altitude sickness may not factor in as a concern — so travelers can find themselves caught unaware... and very uncomfortable.
However there are steps you can take to ensure a successful trip that won’t leave you feeling sick. Consider these tips, starting before you even arrive at your destination.
1. Aim for prevention
Get your sleep and start slow. “Overdoing it can make altitude sickness worse. If you are already low on sleep, your risk for altitude sickness increases,” says Tania Elliott, Chief Medical Officer of healthcare company EHE.
Beyond that, it's absolutely crucial to remain hydrated — but don't overdo it. “It was previously believed that you need to drink more fluid than you normally would, but the truth is, too much water plus high altitudes can lead to something called hypernatremia, where overhydrating actually dilutes the normal sodium levels in your body, and it could be life threatening,” Elliott says.
People with high blood pressure, heart, or lung issues are at higher risk, but the key is being acclimated to the altitude. “Your body needs time to get used to the fact that there is less accessible oxygen in the air than it is used to,” she says.
It's a misconception that there is less oxygen in the air. The truth is, the air pressure is lower so the air particles are farther apart. In the end, this makes less oxygen accessible to the body. “If you are doing a big climb to 14,000 feet, start doing some smaller hikes to altitudes of 2,500, 4,000, and 8,500 leading up to the big trip,” she says.
2. Avoid alcohol
Alcohol slows down the body’s adjustment to elevation. Monitor your alcohol consumption over your first few days. You will feel its affects faster than usual, and balance consumption with water. “The first 48 hours is critical. Avoid strenuous activity; limit your physical activity to 20 minutes at a time. Be sure to nap and rest. Some studies show that a carbohydrate rich diet can help,” Elliott notes.
3. Get extra oxygen
Ski resorts like Viceroy Snowmass and The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch in Beaver Creek, Colorado are helping travelers combat altitude sickness by offering oxygen bars to relax and remedy altitude-sickness symptoms. “The idea is that because mountain town destinations sit at such higher elevations than we're used to, bellying up to an oxygen bar can either relieve the fatigue, nausea, shortness of breath, and headaches associated with altitude sickness — or at least offer preventative measures and a fun excuse to take a break from skiing,” says Lindsey Epperly of Epperly Travel. Take it a step further at the St. Regis Deer Valley, where spa offers a Regenerating Oxygen Facial, complete with pure oxygen inhalation therapy.
4. Take things slow
The absolute best thing is to arrange your trip so that your body can acclimatize gradually. “In Peru, we like to take people from sea-level in Lima, where most people arrive, up into the foothills of the Andes for a few days first. Somewhere like Arequipa is perfect. Once your body has had a few days here to get used to a slightly higher altitude, you're much less likely to feel any ill effects when you go up to Cusco or Machu Picchu," says Dan Clarke, a founder of South American operator RealWorld.
The other common-sense tip is just to take things easy. "Obviously your instinct is to rush out and see as much as possible, but try and plan for a gentle first couple of days at altitude and your body will thank you for it,” Clarke says.
5. Seek treatment
Local culture offer various versions of their own remedies to altitude sickness. “In Bolivia, the locals chew on the coca leaf, which is available in bulk at public markets, but tourists can take the edge off the high altitude with a small dose in the form of coca leaf teabags or gum,” says cultural expert Annalisa Nash Fernandez.
In Bolivia — whose international airport in La Paz is the highest in the world — the coca leaf is seen as a stimulant like coffee, and although it is the main ingredient in cocaine, the country has an exception to the UN's regulation of narcotics.
There are medicines you can take to prevent the development of altitude sickness if you are prone to it, if you aren't in the best physical shape, or, if you know you won't be able to take it slow the first 48 hours, Elliott says. If you are already suffering, rest, carbohydrates, and ibuprofen can help.
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