Altitude sickness can be a worry for many travellers wanting to visit South America, and we aren’t going to lie – it was a big worry for us too. After too much googling and reading horror stories of people dying from high altitude we realised we were being silly and we can’t let it ruin our trip. In all honesty most people will feel something from going to high altitude, but most visitors feel absolutely fine after a day or two of acclimatising!
If you are flying to altitude from sea level you will notice a difference. Some experience a mild headache and fatigue for the first two days, but it is rare to have symptoms be more severe than that. Also, remember there are many things you can do to help if you are feeling a little unwell to help you recover.
What is Altitude Sickness?
Altitude sickness occurs when your body is suddenly exposed to a higher altitude, usually above 2,500 meters above sea level. The thinner air means you won’t be taking in as much oxygen as you’re used to. To counteract this, your body will need to breathe faster and pump blood more rapidly in order to take in the same amount of oxygen it is accustomed to receiving. For many people, this comes as a shock to the body, causing various symptoms.
Symptoms of Altitude Sickness
Diarrhea or constipation
Symptoms usually come on within 12 to 24 hours of reaching a higher elevation and then get better within a day or two as your body adjusts to the change in altitude.
Will you get Altitude Sickness?
Anyone can develop altitude sickness, no matter how fit, young, or healthy they are – even Olympic athletes can get it. The best way to avoid it is to ascend gradually. Flying straight to a high altitude destination is not recommended but is sometimes the only option, in which case we have plenty of tips to treat symptoms.
Ways To Treat Altitude Sickness
1. Drink lots of water. This would be our number one tip. Not only are you at high altitude, you are also in a very dry environment. As one of the main symptoms of altitude sickness is a headache staying hydrated will make a huge difference. Avoid drinking a lot of caffeine or alcohol for the first couple of days as well.
2. Take it easy. Your body will have to adapt to functioning with less oxygen, and you will probably find yourself out of breath quite easily for a day or two, so don’t rush out for a full day of sightseeing as soon as you step off the plane!
3. Drink Tea – The locals recommend coca tea, and although there is no scientific evidence that it helps, hot, herbal drink seems to make people feel better. You could also try mint tea, which is caffeine free and great for upset stomachs as well.
4. Medication. There are a number of over the counter medications for altitude sickness which you might want to consider, but be aware that most of these treat the symptoms not the cause. Taking paracetamol and having rest normally does the trick. Speak to your doctor if you are worried or have a medical condition which may be affected by high altitudes.
5. Oxygen. The reason you are feeling ill is your bodies lack of oxygen. Most hotels have oxygen tanks for guests who are feeling particularly unwell. In extreme circumstances you may have to see a doctor or descend to a lower altitude, which is the only way to alleviate the symptoms.
How It Affected Us
Our South American tour took us straight from the Amazon Jungle to Cusco, which meant we ascended very quickly. On the first day we felt very light headed, almost like we were hungover. We made sure we took our first two days in Cusco very easy, drinking a lot of water (we needed to use the bathroom a lot but it was worth it). By day 3 we were back to normal and spent the rest of the week hiking to Machu Picchu and felt perfectly fine.
During our hike we drank electrolytes every morning and had hot tea during lunch and dinner which we felt also helped us with staying hydrated while in high altitude.
Want to explore South America? Make sure you check out Geckos Adventures South America Highlights Tour
Thanks to Geckos Adventure for allowing us to be apart of your ambassador program for 2017!