Lightheadedness. Nausea. Headache. Insomnia. Your heart beating a mile minute. These are not the symptoms of a great vacation, but they may be the symptoms of altitude sickness. So how do you cure altitude sickness? Better yet, how do you avoid it in the first place?
Tempting though it may be, there’s no need to make a beeline for Machu Picchu the moment you touch down in Peru. The low air pressure and decreased oxygen levels found at higher elevations can easily lead to altitude sickness. It’s in your best interest to set up your home base at a somewhat lower altitude to allow your body to get used to the raised elevation. You can visit the high-altitude hotspots during the day, and return to your hotel a few thousand feet lower to allow your body to recover in the evening.
2. Watch Your Alcohol Intake
You may be asking yourself: what’s the point of a vacation if you can’t enjoy a nice glass of wine while the sun sets? Or indulge in a few spirits peculiar to the area you’re visiting? It’s part of taking in the culture, after all.
While it may be fun to have a sip of something, it is in your best interest to wait at least a couple days before indulging in a crate of the Shangri-la Highland Craft Brewery‘s finest, as alcohol can increase the severity of the effects of altitude sickness. Tobacco and other depressants such as sleeping pills should be avoided as well, at least until your body finds its equilibrium in its new environment.
3. Hydrate And Fuel Your Body
At high altitudes, it can be more difficult to tell when your body needs water, so keep an eye on your intake. It’s also important to make sure your body receives the fuel it needs in order to thrive at a higher altitude. The good news? Chocolate is actually an ideal food for this situation, as it contains a lot of sugar. This is one of those rare instances when eating chocolate is actually a healthy decision and not just a delicious one. Thousands of feet above sea level, quick and easy carbohydrates are your friends.
4. Take It Easy
Though you may want to trek up and down every valley and byway on your alpine getaway, it’s also important to make sure you to take it slow and get plenty of sleep. You didn’t fly halfway around the world to stay cooped up in a hotel room, and on vacation you want to make sure you don’t miss one square inch of adventure. But the hustle and bustle of travel can throw off our bodies enough as it is, and the effects of high altitudes only intensify the issue. Consider skipping your morning jog, at least for the first few days (it is a vacation after all), and get plenty of rest while your body adjusts.
5. Look Into Prescription Options
Aspirin has been shown to alleviate the effects of altitude sickness, so it’s certainly a good idea to carry some with you. However, if you are particularly concerned about altitude sickness, or have a history of it, have a talk with your doctor and see if you can get a prescription for Diamox. Though typically used to treat glaucoma, Diamox is also used to relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness. Another option may be dexamethasone, a steroid that decreases swelling in the brain and other areas, thereby fighting the effects of visiting a mountainous region.
6. Chew Coca Leaves
If you’re in Peru, Bolivia, or certain parts of Argentina, another option at your disposal is chewing coca leaves, which helps with oxygen levels in your blood. Outside of those three locations, however, coca is illegal, as it is used to manufacture cocaine. (Don’t worry: chewing the unprocessed leaves is not the same as doing coke, though it is a mild stimulant.)
As far as international law is concerned, chewing coca is sort of a grey area. The UN may not care for the practice, but it’s been used for centuries by indigenous peoples to cope with rigorous work and long journeys. Coca leaves are purported to help combat altitude sickness as well.
Bear in mind that “chew” is a bit of a misnomer here. You don’t simply pop a few leaves in your mouth and start gnawing on it like it’s a stick of Bazooka Joe. After removing the stems, you place a wad of leaves against your cheek and use bicarbonate powder or lejia to activate the alkaloids contained within. Treat the leaves like a hard candy instead of a piece of gum. You can also use the leaves to make tea, or simply put some in your drinking water.
7. Seek Medical Attention
If worst comes to worst and you find yourself experiencing severe altitude sickness symptoms, seek medical treatment immediately. Get to a lower altitude while exerting yourself as little as possible. Should you find yourself unable to descend, oxygen treatment can help with your symptoms. Many high-altitude locations will have bottled oxygen readily available. It may be a good idea to bring along a bottle or two in case of an emergency.
On top of being an uncomfortable annoyance, altitude sickness can actually be life-threatening. Familiarize yourself with the various types of altitude sickness and their respective symptoms, through research, or even discussing it with your doctor if you’re so inclined. This will put you in a position to make an informed decision on an appropriate course of action should it strike you when you’re on vacation.
By using these methods you can ensure your high-altitude trip is enjoyable, and more importantly, safe.