There’s nothing worse than having to battle the effects of altitude sickness when you just want to enjoy the sights. However the reality is that a trip to Peru will probably result in a significant climb above sea level whether that be simply exploring towns like Cuzco that are over 3,400 m (11,000 feet), getting atop the Machu Picchu UNESCO World Heritage Site (2350 m) or even exploring the heights of the Peruvian Andes (average height 4,000 m, 13,000 feet).
So if you’re planning a trip to Peru it’s best to be aware of the causes of altitude sickness and what you can do to prevent or relieve it.
Altitude sickness is caused by reduced air pressure and lower oxygen concentrations at high altitude and can occur anywhere above 2,400 m (8,000 feet). The onset of this sickness can vary from between eight to 96 hours after arrival. About 50 percent of people who live around sea level will experience some form of sickness above 4,200 m (14,000 feet).
Altitude sickness can manifest itself as anything from headache, rapid pulse, nose bleeds, shortness of breath, vomiting, fatigue, dizziness and sleeplessness to more acute and deadly conditions such as pulmonary and cerebral edemas. So it certainly is an illness that should be taken seriously.
Altitude sickness seems to be no discerner of persons whether you be fit, healthy, obese or skinny. It can strike anyone. Usually the rate at which altitude is gained, the amount of activity at a particular altitude and a person’s individual susceptibility can contribute to its severity. Those that have a history of altitude sickness, are resident at less than 3,000 feet and less than 50 years of age are sometimes deemed more susceptible.
There are some things you can do to prevent the onset of altitude sickness. Firstly always ascend in height slowly or by increments. Often symptoms are temporary and you will become acclimatized in a day or so and improve. One basic principle to relieve symptoms is to allow a day or rest for every 600 m (2000 feet) climbed above 2,400 m (8000 feet).
When you first reach a high altitude you are best to rest as much as possible the first day. This means no skiing, hiking, mountain biking or any other activity. You should also avoid alcohol consumption and remain well hydrated as fluids are easily lost in thin, dry air. Staying hydrated is important as sometimes what people think is altitude sickness is simply a headache from dehydration.
Those attempting high altitude hikes or summit climbs, usually use the climb-high, sleep-low approach. This means after their day climb they return to base camp to sleep, thereby allowing the body to adjust gradually to lower oxygen levels until they are ready to overnight higher up. In this way they slowly ascend.
For serious cases of altitude sickness, the best treatment is to descend. More serious symptoms usually include skin discolouration, confusion, coughing, decreased consciousness, pale complexion, shortness of breath even at rest, and chest tightness.
If you are unsure of your condition seek medical help. If this is not available, certainly do not continue to ascend as sometimes all that is required is a descent of a few hundred metres, usually 500-1000 meters is best. There are some drugs that can help but they are not recommended for routine use and you should consult an expert about them in any case. Some people prefer the use of antioxidants but their effectiveness has not been proven.
Alternatively oxygen from a bottle or cylinder will help if it is available and most mountaineering parties should carry oxygen supplies. Some climbing parties might have portable hyperbaric chambers that simulate the conditions of lower altitudes inside. These are handy if it is not possible to move down the mountain due to inclement weather or other factors.
Another treatment Peruvians use is tea made from the coca plant, or they may simply chew on coca leaves. Both have been found to alleviate the occurrence and severity of symptoms so you may wish to go local on your treatments.