If you are planning a trip to a destination where the altitude is higher than sea level, especially above 4,000 meters, you run the risk of altitude sickness. For this reason, we always recommend traveling with travel insurance .
Since the atmospheric pressure and the partial pressure of oxygen in the air we breathe continually decrease, less and less oxygen reaches the blood and our tissues. As a result, the body is unable to function properly. Acute mountain sickness, known by the acronym AMS , groups a series of disorders that occur as a result of spending a long period of time in regions that are well above sea level.
Before visiting high mountain destinations, a series of tips will be useful to detect and prevent altitude sickness , and know how to act if you suffer from it. In this article you will find all the details focused on preventing altitude sickness.
COUNTRIES AND TOWNS WHERE YOU CAN SUFFER FROM ALTITUDE SICKNESS
Peru, Bolivia and Chile are countries that concentrate some of the highest populations in the world and also some of the most visited. These are some of the 10 towns in Latin America that are above 3,500 meters and that, due to their great beauty, are worth visiting:
1. Cusco (Peru)
This city located at 3,400 meters, is one of the essential things to see in Peru . Not in vain, it is called “the historical capital of Peru” or “the Rome of America”. We recommend that you wait at least three days there to acclimatize before visiting Machu Picchu or climbing Vinicunca Mountain.
Altitude sickness in Peru
2. Puno (Peru)
The city is nestled on the shores of Lake Titicaca and is located at 3,800 meters. Seeing first-hand the highest navigable lake in the world is a must if you go to Peru. The measures to avoid altitude sickness should be taken even more into account when sailing the lake by catamaran, since seasickness caused by navigation can increase physical discomfort.
3. Juliaca (Peru)
Like Puno, Juliaca is at about 3,800 meters and is one of the largest cities in Peru. Its location on the Collao plateau exposes it to constant air currents. For this reason, it is called “City of the Wind”. It is recommended to climb the Huaynarroque hill and contemplate the landscape from its viewpoint , stroll through the island of Amantaní and see the Chacas lagoon and its surroundings.
4. Hill of Pasco (Peru)
Despite being situated at 4,380 meters, Cerro de Pasco is home to some 50,000 people. Given its importance as a mining center, this Peruvian population is known as the mining capital of the country . You can practice adventure sports, contemplate the waterfalls in the Huayllay Stone Forest and enjoy a warm bath in the relaxing waters of La Calera.
5. The Rinconada (Peru)
La Rinconada has the distinction of being the highest city in the world. It is located neither more nor less than 5,130 meters. Surprisingly, approximately 60,000 people live here. This Peruvian town has picturesque lakes and mines , making it a great option for those who enjoy high mountain adventures.
6. La Paz (Bolivia)
In Bolivia you can visit several high altitude cities and explore many natural wonders. One of the most popular destinations in the country is La Paz, its capital, which is located at 3,600 meters above sea level .
We recommend you go shopping at the Mercado de las Brujas and delight yourself with the architectural beauty of Plaza Murillo and Calle Jaén. You can also enjoy a panoramic view of the city from the Killi Killi viewpoint and the cable car, and take an excursion through the Valley of the Moon.
La Paz Bolivia altitude sickness
7. Oruro (Bolivia)
The fifth largest city in Bolivia has an elevation of about 3,700 meters. Oruro has become a major silver mining center and a popular tourist destination. The Oruro Carnival, recognized by UNESCO for its religious and cultural importance, is one of the most popular celebrations in the country.
8. Potosi (Bolivia)
Despite being 4,070 meters above sea level, this Bolivian city is home to some 170,000 inhabitants. Potosí has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list since the 1980s . Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, it produced almost half of all the world’s silver in circulation from the old continent. In addition, it is located just three hours from the Salar de Uyuni, an idyllic salt desert of 11,000 m2 .
Salar de Uyuni Bolivia altitude sickness
9. El Alto (Bolivia)
The town of El Alto lives up to its name: it is located at an altitude of 4,150 metres. This makes it one of the highest human settlements in Bolivia and the rest of the world. The main attractions in this area are the Muruqu Qhuta and Colorada lagoons , the Milluni dam, and the ruins of the Ex Stuquera, an abandoned complex with large chimneys and clay ovens.
10. Parinacota (Chile)
When talking about the highest populations in South America, Parinacota cannot be left out. It is a small village at 4,400 meters above sea level. It was considered a National Monument of Chile in the 1970s . It is currently a desert town, but that has not prevented thousands of hikers from visiting it every year to enjoy its tourist attractions. These include lakes, lagoons and constructions dating back to the 17th century.
WHEN DOES ALTITUDE SICKNESS START?
As mentioned above, the signs of mountain sickness can appear from 2,000 to 4,000 meters of altitude . At 3,000 meters, 30% of travelers had symptoms, while at 4,000, between 65 and 70% may be affected.
Symptoms of altitude sickness
As indicated at the beginning, as you ascend, the amount of oxygen in each breath is reduced. As the amount of oxygen reaching the blood and tissues decreases, the human body is forced to adapt to the new circumstances. However, some people do not acclimatize as expected and suffer from the symptoms of altitude sickness as a result . These usually appear between 6 and 12 hours after arrival at the destination and include:
Extreme weakness and fatigue
Insomnia and sleepiness
Dizziness, nausea and vomiting
loss of appetite
The intensity of the aforementioned symptoms depends on the altitude at which you are, the rate of ascent and the effort involved. There are various methods to assess the severity of altitude sickness, one of the most used being the Lake Louise questionnaire . This system assigns a score to the main signs of mountain sickness.
Although headache is a hallmark of altitude sickness , diagnosis of this condition requires confirmation of one or more additional symptoms and a score of 3 or higher on the Lake Louis Questionnaire. A total of 6 points to severe mountain sickness.
Now, mountain sickness should not be confused with the physiological changes that all travelers experience when reaching very high regions . In such a scenario, the following symptoms are considered normal:
More frequent and deeper breathing
Difficulty breathing during physical activity
Altered breathing rhythm when sleeping
Frequent sleep interruptions at night
Increased need to urinate
altitude sickness symptoms
PRECAUTIONS TO AVOID ALTITUDE SICKNESS
It is essential to acclimatise to the altitude reached before proceeding further. In other words, the ascent must be gradual so that the body gradually adapts to the lack of oxygen . When ascending above 2,000 meters, it is recommended to wait 2-3 days before spending the night at a higher altitude. Also, it is recommended not to ascend more than 300 meters per day in order to gradually prepare your body for a higher altitude.
From 5,000 meters, you should limit your ascent for the day to 250 meters , and not climb more than 200 meters a day when you reach 6,000 meters. Some people acclimatize quickly, others at a slower rate. It is also possible for the same person to experience mountain sickness on one trip and have no symptoms on another trip. This can happen even when the height is the same both times.
Other practical ways to prevent altitude sickness are :
Avoid activities that can further impair breathing, such as strenuous exercise, overeating, and drinking alcohol.
Sleep at a lower altitude than you have been during the day, never the other way around.
Consume an adequate amount of carbohydrates to avoid that lack of glucose increases the feeling of tiredness and drink enough fluids (3 to 4 liters a day) to reduce the risk of dehydration.
Wait for all the symptoms of mountain sickness to disappear before continuing to climb.
Descend if symptoms continue to worsen.
TREATMENT OF ALTITUDE SICKNESS
Currently, there is no specific treatment to prevent the symptoms of mountain sickness from appearing . But that’s not to say there aren’t ways to prevent it or keep symptoms from getting worse. Let’s talk about some recommendations that will be of great help to you.
When symptoms are mild, it is essential to stay well hydrated, eat enough carbohydrates to stay well nourished, and take mild pain relievers to relieve headache pain . However, if the signs get worse, you should descend as soon as possible to the lowest possible height. It is essential that you do it accompanied by someone who can offer you assistance if necessary. Sometimes a descent of just 400 meters will improve your health. Do not ascend again until the discomfort has disappeared.
During the trip, you should completely avoid resorting to sedatives for insomnia , as these tend to cause changes in breathing. It has been proven that taking acetazolamide before starting the ascent helps prevent mountain sickness and speed recovery when symptoms occur. Possible side effects of this drug are headache, nausea, and blurred vision.
CONSEQUENCES OF ALTITUDE SICKNESS
Continuing to climb at the same rate despite presenting symptoms of mountain sickness increases the risk of developing serious health problems. What are the most common and what warning signs do they produce?
high altitude pulmonary edema. Difficult, rapid, and shallow breathing, headache, chest pain or tightness, cough with bloody and frothy secretions, nausea, palpitations, extreme tiredness, and drowsiness are common features of this condition. In addition, a bubbling sound may be heard when breathing, and the lips and fingernails may turn a bluish hue as a result of decreased oxygen levels. Most of the time, this kind of pulmonary edema is the result of vigorous physical activity at high altitudes.
High altitude cerebral edema. It is the most serious consequence of acute mountain sickness (AMS). It often occurs in people who ignore early symptoms and continue to climb. Patients with high-altitude cerebral edema often keep their heads down and their necks bent, and experience headache, nausea and vomiting, unbalanced walking, weakness, disorientation, hallucinations, and blackouts. The treatment comprises the same therapies that are implemented for high altitude pulmonary edema.
Altitude sickness can also cause other consequences, such as congestive heart failure, enlargement of the right ventricle, and retinal hemorrhage. The latter consists of bleeding of the retina, it occurs from 5000 meters of altitude and does not present previous symptoms. Therefore, it is critical that you descend immediately if you experience this complication. Altitude insomnia is another condition derived from sudden ascents. It is characterized by an unrefreshing night’s rest and sudden interruptions in sleep accompanied by shortness of breath.
Taking into account everything that mountain sickness causes, it is important to take out insurance that, among other coverage, offers you the possibility of receiving emergency medical assistance .
HOW LONG DOES ALTITUDE SICKNESS LAST?
Even if the signs of altitude sickness are mild, you should rest for 24-48 hours before resuming the excursion . On the other hand, if the signs worsen, go down as much as possible.
It usually takes a few days to acclimatize to altitudes above 3,000 meters . During this adaptation period, the body speeds up breathing and produces more red blood cells to carry oxygen to the tissues.
Getting the body used to an elevation greater than 5,300 meters requires many days or even weeks. After completing the acclimatization period, some individuals develop the ability to perform almost all of their normal activities . However, complete adaptation is not always possible at this point.