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ALTITUDE SICKNESS CAN REALLY PUT A DAMPER ON ANY HIGH-ELEVATION ADVENTURE. LUCKILY, WITH A BIT OF PLANNING AND LEARNING YOU CAN LOWER YOUR CHANCES OF GETTING SICK. LEARN THE MAJOR CAUSES AND CURES HERE.
Imagine, you are finally heading out on the epic adventure that you have been planning for months (maybe even years) when all of a sudden you start to get a killer headache and you just start to feel really tired and out of breath.
Welp, more likely than not you have come down with the dreaded altitude sickness. Turns out, this is quite common - especially for people that are traveling from much lower elevations up to higher elevations.
But what is altitude sickness? And how do you beat it when it feels like it is totally beating you? We explain all of this in this handy, straight-to-the-point article. Keep reading to learn more.
\\ What is Altitude Sickness?
Also known as “mountain sickness,” altitude sickness is a group of symptoms that can hit you when you walk, hike or climb to a higher elevation or altitude too quickly. This is one of the most common dangers and issues when traveling to destinations that are at a much higher elevation than where you are used to. Likewise, when adventuring - especially trekking or mountaineering - it is very common for you to have to put aside a couple of days to acclimate to the change in elevation.
While altitude sickness is kind of an all encompassing thing, there are actually three different levels of severity. Below they are listed from least dangerous to the most dangerous.
| Acute mountain sickness (AMS)
| High-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE)
| High-altitude cerebral edema (HACE)
So how long does altitude sickness last? Well, it depends. Usually you will get the worst of the symptoms on the first day or night and then they may level off a bit. This is especially true if you decide to head back down to a lower elevation. Now, if you continue to climb higher up you can likely expect the symptoms to not go away and maybe even get worse.
More often than not, the altitude sickness symptoms will go away after a couple of days, especially if you spend those days resting and at a lower elevation.
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COMMON ALTITUDE SICKNESS SYMPTOMS AND SIGNS
Below are the most common symptoms you may feel when adventuring at higher elevations. Do note that you may not feel all of these symptoms at once. For example, when we have been hiking or backpacking at higher elevations we each have felt different symptoms. Madalyne often gets headaches and a bit of dizziness and lightheadedness, while Luke usually feels more nauseous and has an overall loss of energy.
| Dizziness and lightheadedness
| Nausea and vomiting
| Fatigue and an overall loss of energy
| Shortness of breath
| Problems with sleeping
| Loss of appetite
The symptoms above are the most common signs of acute mountain sickness (AMS), the least severe form of altitude sickness. The five symptoms below are signs that you may be experiencing an even more severe form of altitude sickness; including, HAPE (high-altitude pulmonary edema) and HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema).
| Shortness of breath even when resting/not moving
| An overall inability to walk
| A cough that produces a frothy substance that is often white or pink
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\\ Where Do You Commonly Get Altitude Sickness
At the heart of it, altitude sickness occurs when you go to higher elevations than what you are used to - especially if you go to higher elevations quickly and/or without taking the proper amount of time to allow your body to get used to the change in pressure and loss of oxygen.
For the most part, you can be at risk of altitude sickness anytime you go above 8,000 feet (2,438 feet) OR if you travel too fast from a lower elevation to a much higher elevation. This second reason is why it is always recommended to take a couple of days to acclimate to the higher elevation. Acclimation, along with a few health choices (see below) is one of the best ways to not get altitude sickness.
COMMON HIGHER ELEVATION DESTINATIONS WHERE ALTITUDE SICKNESS IS POSSIBLE
Some of the most popular destinations in the world sit at higher elevations - meaning it is quite possible (and even common) for travelers to experience some symptoms of altitude sickness while visiting. Below are a few popular higher elevation destinations.
| La Paz, Bolivia (elevation: 11,893 feet)
| Cusco, Peru (elevation: 11,152 feet)
| Quito, Ecuador (elevation: 9,350 feet)
| Bogota, Colombia (elevation: 8,661 feet)
| Mexico City, Mexico (elevation: 7,349 feet)
| Denver, Colorado (and other popular Colorado destinations like Aspen, Crested Butte, and Vail)
❔GOOD TO KNOW: so can you get altitude sickness at Machu Picchu in Peru? While the uber famous ruins do only sit at 2,430 meters above sea level (7,972 ft) it is definitely still possible to get altitude sickness upon visiting - especially if you are coming from a much lower elevation (like Lima, the capital of Peru). The best tip to help yourself from getting altitude sickness is to spend some time acclimating beforehand, especially in a city like Cusco, which sits at a much higher 11,152 feet.
Besides visiting some higher elevation cities, it is also really common to get symptoms of altitude sickness when you are out adventuring - especially if you are climbing up big mountains and/or trekking in higher alpine environments. In South America especially, altitude sickness is relatively common for people looking to trek or mountaineer in the Andes. Even on very popular hikes like the Inca Trail in Peru, altitude sickness is a well-known possibility (and something guides take into account when planning trips).
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\\ Top Tips to Fight Altitude Sickness
There are a few key ways to fight altitude sickness. Though again the number one way to keep yourself from getting altitude sickness is to simply take your time and move up to higher elevations slowly. This is especially true if you live at much lower elevations (like sea level). When planning to head to much higher elevations - like above 8,000 feet - make sure to put aside a couple of days to acclimate before doing anything physically demanding (like hiking, backpacking, climbing or running).
Other ways to help you NOT get altitude sickness:
| Make sure you are drinking enough water. This is a great way to fight headaches and dizziness.
| Avoid smoking and drinking alcohol until you are fully acclimated.
| Avoid physically demanding exercise for at least the first 24 hours.
| Eat a light, but high-calorie diet.