I’m no doctor – let me just put it out there. But I have experienced altitude sickness so debilitating (or at least that’s how I felt), that I almost bought a return ticket back home from South America.
According to Altitude.org, altitude sickness has three forms:
- The common mild altitude sickness or acute mountain sickness (AMS), which is said to be quite similar to a hangover. Headaches, nausea, and fatigue are common symptoms. Altitude.org warns that if you have AMS, you should take this as a warning sign that you are at risk of the serious forms of altitude sickness.
- HAPE, and
- HACE*. Both HAPE and HACE can be fatal within hours.
(More information can be found on their website).
That backpacking trip my husband and I did to South America really tested our overall endurance. We trained physically and mentally for a year (running, circuit training, weights you name it) knowing that we were going to do a lot of trekking and walking around. But we soon found out that altitude has a way of creeping up on you, affecting everyone in different ways…even the extremely fit.
Our symptoms included migraine-like headaches, short of breath, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, really poor appetite and severe fatigue to the point of almost passing out. Luckily in South America, there are some natural and strange remedies available – and we were open to all of them. So I thought I’d share with you what we did to kick AMS in the butt in able to continue with our adventures.
Go.Up. Slowly. At. Your. Own. Pace. If you know that you will be trekking at extreme heights,
start off at a lower altitude. For instance, we started off at Central Lima (Peru) which is approximately 512ft/156m above sea level. We then went to Arequipa at 7,600ft/2,300m – this is where the altitude really kicked in. Bedridden for two days, I was on a mate de coca (coca tea) diet.
Try local herbal remedies
The locals know what they’re doing. I was attached to a bottle of homemade mate de coca and even chewed on raw coca leaves. During our trek to Colca Canyon, with varying altitude from 7,545ft/2,300m, 15,748m/4,800m and 11,482m/3,500m, I must’ve passed out several times during the 3 hour bumpy, winding bus ride from Arequipa to Chivay, being squished between the door and at least 10 Peruvians! This is where we also got introduced to some weird smelling rubbing alcohol. Our local guide communicated to us with hand signals to pour some of this liquid in the palm of our hands and wash our face with it, then rub the remnants on our stomachs and finish off by sniffing it. It took a few minutes for nausea and migraine to subside.
Painkillers or Aspirins will provide temporary relief, but better than nothing. It was enough for me to at least get through the long bus ride through the Andes. Altitude.org, eMedicine Health and Patient.co.uk all mention Acetazolamide (Diamox), which may be prescribed to hasten acclimatisation.
Rest Up, Descend & Acclimatise Some More
Lots of rest. There’s nothing wrong with staying put for a day or two in the same altitude to allow your body to get used to it. If need be and if possible, descend to a lower altitude.
Stay properly hydrated by drinking loads of water. We carried a 2L water hydration pack in our backpacks on all of our treks, and filled it up whenever we could.
High Nutrient Diet
During our trek to Colca Canyon and Inca Trail, our guides fed us lots of high nutrient foods such as Quinoa, which is also high in fibre and has a low-GI, beneficial for keeping blood sugar levels stable. We even tried Alpaca meat for the first time, a major food source in South America providing a good source of protein with little saturated fat or cholesterol. We also kept trail mixes, muesli bars and Snickers bars handy.
DISCLAIMER: This is purely my opinion and based on my experience. It is recommended that you seek advice from a medical/healthcare professional.