i don't want to be carried to a hospital by llama
April 29, 2010 1:11 PM   Subscribe

how to prepare for a high altitude vacation and avoid altitude sickness?

i'm going to PERU!!!! i'm super excited, but also a little wary. we are hitting up colca canyon, lake titicaca, and cusco/machu picchu on our trip. i have this terrible image of me being laid up in a hospital with terrible altitude sickness during what should be a trip of a lifetime!

so my question is, in the coming months, is there anything i can do in the coming months to help prepare for my trip? we will be somewhat active (some hiking, kayaking) but it isn't an EXTREME ADVENTURRRREEE trip. we are fairly fit, active people. also, what can we do when we are there to limit our chances of getting altitude sickness? any medications anyone would recommend?
posted by raw sugar to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I was in Cusco and really, no kidding, take the coca tea they offer you on the plane and at the hotel. It helps mucho.
posted by *s at 1:24 PM on April 29, 2010

Go somewhere high (but closer to your house than Peru) and see if you are prone to altitude sickness. I am insanely susceptible to it and was taken off guard the first time I went up to 11000 feet and keeled over. At this point I get sick if I go above 9000 feet too quickly, which is ridiculous!

Most people don't have a serious or ongoing problem but if you do you'll be glad to know. There is medication you can take.
posted by fshgrl at 1:26 PM on April 29, 2010

The biggest thing you can do is take it slowly when you arrive at high altitude. Many a person knocked flat by altitude sickness could have avoided it by respecting the fact that it is a matter of days, not hours, to adjust to lower oxygen levels.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:33 PM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

You don't say where you are coming from. Lake titicaca sts at around 12,000 feet and machu picchu only sits at about 8,000 ft. Cusco's higher than that. Unless you are coming from sea level, you really shouldn't have any issues below around 10,000 feet, unless you are out of shape. It will be harder to catch your breath, you may get headaches the first couple of days.

Diamox helps somewhat, but could make you dehydrated and sensitive to light.

My suggestion is go a day or 2 early just for acclimatization, your body will thank you!
Stay well hydrated.
Purell or pure hell.

The coca tea you get won't have enough active ingredients in it to do anything, except possibly get you sick. Unless it comes in a tea bag form, don't bother with it, it tastes kind of nasty anyway.
posted by TheBones at 1:37 PM on April 29, 2010

When you step off the plane in Cuzco, you'll be breathing heavily. You'll probably get sick from the water/food more likely than altitude. They sell sorojchi pills in the Botica's in Peru for altitude. They help with headaches, but it's pretty much just aspirin. My sister took Diamox which she got in the States with a prescription along with some antibiotics. Have some Imodium on hand. Ciprol is OTC and cheaper in Peru.

The coca tea is yummy, but I think it's effect was a mixture of more of a placebo & keeping hydrated.

that it is a matter of days, not hours, to adjust to lower oxygen levels.

Indeed. I had my worse headaches about 4 days after arriving in Cuzco. Pisac is about 45 soles ($16) away by taxi and at a lower altitude if you need to descend a little.
posted by yeti at 1:38 PM on April 29, 2010

thank you for the helpful replies so far!
TheBones, i'm in northern california, and i think at sea level (the ocean isn't far from where i live)
posted by raw sugar at 1:41 PM on April 29, 2010

Cardiovascular fitness will help.
posted by Good Brain at 1:47 PM on April 29, 2010

Can you visit mammoth or the cascades before you go? Also, biking uphill really helps- long, long, long uphills.

My suggestion is, if you can, get out for a long weekend (4 days or so if you can swing it) camping trip a week before your trip at altitude. You will somewhat acclimatize, or at least know what you are in for.

Don't forget that it's going to be alot drier there. You may get some bloody noses.
posted by TheBones at 1:49 PM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm generally a skeptical person, but when I went to Peru and had the coca tea, it felt like the effects were more than just placebo. Either way, try it out, it's part of the experience.

Rest the first day at high altitude, drink tons of water, take pain medication, be physically fit beforehand.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 2:02 PM on April 29, 2010

Diamox is worth getting. I know a guy who observes with telescopes at Mauna Kea who swears by it.

Repeating the advice about taking it slowly when you get to altitude. I once took a hike right after I got to Cusco because I'd been on a train for 20 hours. I felt fine until I suddenly passed out in the hostel after the hike.
posted by lukemeister at 2:08 PM on April 29, 2010

What most others have said. Stay hydrated and lay off the alcohol. In Nepal, where I've done some trekking (at elevations 18,000+) some of the villagers recommend garlic consumption as a means not only to treat altitude sickness but also acclimate quicker. I imagine the results would be highly individual but I ate a lot of garlic soup over there and I fared quite well. For what its worth, your physical conditioning is far less a factor than you think. One doctor over there told me that very fit folks like myself (at the time) were more likely to get in trouble with altitude sickness simply because we thought we were invincible. Everyone acclimates at their own speed. Give yourself time to do so and you'll be totally fine. A few days acclimating at your "base" before going higher should do it.

Headaches are pretty common as you begin to acclimate, but if you start to get really bad symptoms (swollen face, REALLY bad headaches, disorientation etc) you need to descend, and I mean fast. Sometimes all it takes is a couple-few hundred feet and you'll be fine. Cerebral edema is no joke, it can kill you fast and even if you survive, it wrecks your hypothalmus or something like that and you can never ascend high in elevation again without risking your life.
posted by elendil71 at 2:09 PM on April 29, 2010

stay hydrated and have lots of snacks with you if possible.

We used to go hiking and snowshoeing in Colorado (10,000 feet-ish) and we always carried tons of m&ms, lance peanut butter crackers, zipper bags of crispy bacon or jerky, and other high-calorie, high-fat, palatable snacks, because getting sugar in quickly when you get fatigued is really helpful. having snacks that combine sugar, fat and protein is good because you get a shot of sugar, then the heavier stuff takes longer to burn off.
posted by toodleydoodley at 3:08 PM on April 29, 2010

My wife and I go from sea level in San Diego to her Dad's house at 9000 feet in Colorado a couple times a year and I definitely feel it the first day or so I am there. After that, I'm fine (she usually doesn't have a problem). On those trips I normally just try to take it easy the first couple of days we're there and drink LOTS of water. My brother-in-law who goes with us every winter usually gets terrible headaches, but that's never been a problem for me. I'd make sure you have some ibuprofen or something just in case.

When we went to Peru a couple years ago, both of us took Diamox the first few days we were there and didn't have any problems except for a little shortness of breath on a couple steep hikes. If you go to a travel clinic ahead of the trip they should give you the option for the Diamox prescription. If I remember correctly, we had to start taking it a day or so before we arrived, so don't leave it until the last minute.
posted by sbrollins at 3:32 PM on April 29, 2010

As others said, see your physician about Diamox. Start taking it a couple days before you arrive. It speeds up acclimitization. Use low doses like 125 mg/day. After a week you can probably do without. It does wonders if you frequently wake up breathless while sleeping.
posted by JackFlash at 6:08 PM on April 29, 2010

I'm a pulmonologist who's had altitude sickness ruin the first few days of a number of trips. I now swear by Diamox when slow acclimation to altitude isn't feasible. As noted, your kidneys take days (not hours) to correct the blood pH disturbance (respiratory alkalemia) resulting from increased minute ventilation at altitude. Diamox essentially speeds that along or preconditions your kidneys for the trip if taken in advance. Discuss it with your doctor, and make sure you do stay well hydrated, particularly if you use this medication as it's a diuretic.
posted by drpynchon at 10:00 PM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm in Northern CA and definitely susceptible to altitude sickness. You can check it out for yourself in the Sierra--there are plenty of peaks over 11k that are a day's hike in. I haven't tried any drugs, but staying hydrated is definitely important. I'm usually a drinker, but can't handle it at all at elevation. I have found that if I spend the first day (above 7-9000ft) without any exertion I feel much better, even with difficult climbs at higher elevations. I can also attest that I am in better shape (typical exercise level) than many of my friends who did not get altitude sick at all. So the good news is that at elevations ~12,000 ft. none of my out-of-shape friends had problems, so you might not either. Have fun!!!
posted by ...tm... at 7:34 PM on April 30, 2010

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