What to Do About Altitude Sickness in Quito?
August 21, 2013 10:41 AM   Subscribe

I (American) flew into Quito last night and now have what I am pretty certain is a case of altitude sickness. I've had a headache since the flight. Then, this morning, I've been unable to walk even short distances (e.g. across a hostel courtyard) without waves of hot/cold through my body, nausea, weakness, chest pounding, a swimmy feeling in my head, and on a couple occasions a sense likes I was going vomit or faint very imminently. I took a nap and felt better, but as soon as I walked outside, the symptoms hit me again. In the absence of having my regular doctor around -- What do I do?

I'm not sure how extreme my symptoms are. My partner is with me and has had a light headache and nausea but nothing as debilitating as I am experiencing. Should we go to a pharmacy and pick up Diamox? Do I need to go to a hospital? Will this pass in a couple of days? (Is this dangerous?) All of these are tiny sub-questions to the big one: What do I do now?
posted by soundproof to Health & Fitness (28 answers total)
This is purely anecdotal, but the two things that made me feel more human during a crippling bout of altitude sickness were small amounts of caffeine and being extremely, nigh-ludicrously well hydrated.
posted by Rallon at 10:45 AM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lots of water has helped me in the past, as well as Ibuprofen.

Folk remedies include Coca Tea.
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:46 AM on August 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Drink a lot of water (or something non-alcoholic). Diamox is probably a good idea. I don't think you need to go to the hospital.
posted by lukemeister at 10:46 AM on August 21, 2013

I was beat my Celsius1414 but I came to suggest the same thing, I've heard that tourists there are usually given coca tea. Tell someone local (hotel/hostel attendant for example) about how you feel, they probably know how to help.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 10:48 AM on August 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oh yeah and remember to keep your meals on the light side, as your digestive system is not well prepared for the altitude either.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 10:49 AM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I was in Cusco, I had symptoms like yours after taking anti-altitude sickness medicine, fwiw, but even after I stopped taking it, I still had a lot of trouble walking long distances without stopping to heave. I am not that out of shape, so it was pretty uncharacteristic of me. What worked was chilling on the roof at my hostel and drinking a lot of coca tea and always having water around. I see you have only been there one day. It went away after a few days, but then for me got worse when we embarked on a 5 day trek up Salcantay Mountain to get to Machu Picchu.
posted by ruhroh at 10:54 AM on August 21, 2013

When altitude sickness hit me in Quito I drank a ton of water and went back to bed. Take it easy for today and drink a lot of water.

I never had coca tea, dammit. There are also coca lozenges that I have heard can do wonders as well.
posted by ambrosia at 10:56 AM on August 21, 2013

Take lots of breaks. If you can, lay down and elevate your feet. I was in a restaurant in Cuzco where a guy got sick - went from fine to almost passing out in a few seconds. The waiters were used to seeing this, and they brought him to a bench and put pillows under his feet. Helped him a lot.

BTW from what I've heard the hydrated idea is fine, drink water and enjoy. But what it really means is go easy on the booze.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 11:00 AM on August 21, 2013

I think you need to wait for your body to start producing more haemoglobin; it takes a few days.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:03 AM on August 21, 2013

Same thing, same place. I prepped by taking B12 and something else herbal that's supposed to help (I forget at this point, sorry) but it sounds like you're suffering a pretty intense case. Time and tea (but with enough water on the side to stay hydrated) are about the only things I know of that will help you. Assuming going downhill isn't an option of course...

Skip the hospital unless your body is telling you it's time for the hospital. Also go easy on the local fare as you don't want to compound things with stomach problems.

By the way, once you feel better climb the cathedral, it's an excellent view.

Good luck.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:05 AM on August 21, 2013

I drank lots of coca tea. Then I did what you're not supposed to do and had alcohol. The result was that I couldn't distinguish the effects of altitude from the effects of alcohol. I also worried less about it.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:09 AM on August 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you start getting difficulty breathing at rest, cough, wheeziness or if you start getting neurological problems (dizziness, vertigo, disorientation, problems with balance or hallucinations) then get to a hospital because altitude sickness can develop into high altitude pulmonary or cerebral oedema in some people, and we're not sure why.

Otherwise, it's a case of suffer through or descend to lower altitude.
posted by kadia_a at 11:10 AM on August 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

This sounded a little reminiscent of anemia, so I Googled [altitude sickness iron]. It looks like some people do recommend increasing iron intake. If you don't have supplements, eat foods rich in iron, and combine them with citrus foods (orange, lime, etc) to make sure the iron gets absorbed well. Non-meat iron rich foods include dark green leaves (iceberg lettuce, not so much. Spinach: yes), beets, and some nuts and raisins.

Also - you probably already tried Googling [altitude sickness], but it sounds like you're not at your best, so I'll just put that out there as a suggestion. There's lots of information up.

If it were me, I'd also Google [coca tea side effects].
posted by amtho at 11:13 AM on August 21, 2013

Thanks so much for these responses so far everyone. The input & anecdotes are helpful/comforting. My partner has gone out in search of water, very light snacks, and coca tea and/or Diamox. Definitely going to avoid alcohol and am going to try to give myself permission to just lay in bed basically all day. I have shortness of breath during/right after exertion but not at rest--thanks for making that distinction.
posted by soundproof at 11:31 AM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I used to regularly get a bit of altitude sickness when coming home to visit family at 8,000 ft in Colorado after I had lived at sea level for a couple of years. Your symptoms sound similar to what I experienced; lots of water and resting is helpful. Usually a night of sleep helps IMMENSELY. Do not drink alcohol, that will make you feel like real shit.

The symptoms that would cause me to head to a hospital are those associated with HAPE or HACE (which is what altitude sickness can evolve into, although it's rare). Namely, if you feel breathless when at rest (sitting or laying down) or start to feel/act drunk (confused, stumbling), that is a sign that your altitude sickness has turned into an emergency and you need to seek out immediate medical attention. A headache and/or breathlessness and nausea after exertion (including mild exertion like walking around) seems more on the end of regular altitude sickness, although certainly more on the severe end of the spectrum that would make me keep a close eye on it. Remember that altitude sickness means your body isn't getting enough oxygen, so back off physical activity that makes you feel bad, even if it means you don't get to go sightseeing your first day or two.
posted by iminurmefi at 11:47 AM on August 21, 2013

The pharmacist gave us this dug Alzaten http://www.quimicaariston.com/website/?p=193&lang=es instead of Diamox. We can't find any resources about it in English though and aren't sure what to do with it..
posted by soundproof at 11:58 AM on August 21, 2013

Contains Phentetramine in Ecuador it looks like. Supposed to help with low blood pressure, basically (antihypotensive).
posted by Celsius1414 at 12:07 PM on August 21, 2013

Versus Diamox (aka Acetazolamide), which is used for various things including Acute Mountain Sickness (aka altitude sickness), and which helps to speed acclimatization.

More info on various treatments.
posted by Celsius1414 at 12:12 PM on August 21, 2013

Came to nth Water. Water has oxygen in it and that's what makes you feel better. It's a real bitch to adjust, but one full day of rest and a lot of water and you'll feel a TON better!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:20 PM on August 21, 2013

If at all possible find a place to sleep for a night or two that is about 1500 feet lower than where you are now. I got altitude sickness trekking in the Himalayas and sleeping at a lower altitude for one night cured it.

Also consciously try to force yourself to breathe more than you think you should. (From a Nova documentary on altitude sickness.)
posted by monotreme at 12:30 PM on August 21, 2013

According to the website, the medicine is contraindicated for people who are hyperthyroid, have cardiovascular disease, hypertension, angina, diabetes, glaucoma, or pheochromocytoma. So if you have any of those, maybe don't take it.

Otherwise it sounds like a basic central nervous system stimulant, like ephedrine. Might make you feel a little speedy.

This is not medical advice, seek out medical care if you have questions, yadda yadda yadda.
posted by jesourie at 1:36 PM on August 21, 2013

The pharmacist gave us this dug Alzaten

The link says to drink 20 drops, 2 to 3 times a day. If they are pills, take 1 or 2 daily.
posted by clearlydemon at 2:23 PM on August 21, 2013

If you can get coca leaves, take two or three, break off the stems, fold them into a longish wad, and stick them down between your cheek and gums. Don't chew, just let your saliva soak them and then sort of suck. If you get them in there well you can talk normally. A quick Google check suggests they're available in Ecuador. They were for sale at neighborhood stores in the north of Argentina and on a tour guide's recommendation, I used them on a trip into the mountains. Tastes like tea, pretty much, but is more portable and really seemed to help.
posted by ceiba at 7:57 PM on August 21, 2013

I got a little bit of altitude sickness on a trip to Peru last month. I was fine until I had a really big, really rich meal, so I second the suggestion above to eat light food. I was told to avoid caffeine, alcohol, and rich foods. I felt great on my first day in Cusco, so I thumbed my nose at the suggestion on the second night, and boy did I pay for it.

Eat light meals, hydrate, skip the caffeine if you can get away with it, and NO BOOZE. Some of the folks I did the Machu Picchu trek with felt the Coca leaves helped them climb, but I didn't really notice a difference. I would take the coca tea, but skip chewing the leaves, if I were you. The guides of our trek didn't want me to try chewing coca until I felt better, though they did suggest I drink coca tea. YMMV.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 10:01 PM on August 21, 2013

Your symptoms sound mostly like dehydration. You need more than just water to stay hydrated. You also need electrolytes. I drank Gatorade in the mountains. At altitude, you urinate more to compensate for the thinner atmosphere. Basically, there isn't enough ability to breathe out the waste products you normally exhale, they accumulate in the blood, and your body compensates by peeing more. This has broader consequences than just losing fluids. You lose a lot of other things along with the fluids. In order to keep pace with it, you need to replace those things. Drinks like Gatorade can help.

It also sounds like you have some kind of mild health issue making this worse. The lack of oxygen is harder on people with certain conditions, like anemia. I had a much harder time in the mountains last year than my sons.
posted by Michele in California at 11:46 PM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I got altitude sickness in the Rockies (Pike's Peak, Central City, cold air) and was quite ill. My huntin'/fishin'/hikin' good ole boy ex poured water and orange juice down me and and took me down to Denver for the night. After, that I was better, but it took a couple more days to get really acclimated. Rest plus water and juice or something like Gatorade should get you feeling better.
posted by JaneL at 11:57 PM on August 21, 2013

the best cure for altitude sickness is lower altitude or oxygen. Don't eat much, drink lots of electrolytes, no booze, no fizzy drinks. You may adjust in 24-48 hours. You may not. There is some danger, but if you are a person in reasonably good shape you will just be miserable. Note that aircraft passenger cabins are pressurized to something like 8000ft, you're not much higher than that.
(Relevant experience - we mine at 15,000 ft. People feel sick, we put 'em on oxygen. Most people adjust in a couple of days. There is a risk of embolism / heart attacks etc, especially if you over-exert, which is easy to do.)
posted by defcom1 at 1:41 PM on August 22, 2013

The problem with altitude sickness in Quito is that the city's pretty much the lowest place in the immediate vicinity. Getting lower means a quite long bus ride.
posted by brokkr at 1:48 PM on August 23, 2013

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