A common problem in the Andes
As soon as people book their trip to Peru, specifically Cusco, they start worrying about altitude sickness. Especially for those who plan to hike to Machu Picchu. Some people wonder why it happens, what is happening to their body and how to prevent it. Here is some information about altitude sickness.
Why does it occur?
The air at high altitudes contains less oxygen than at sea level. Your body has to work harder to get the oxygen it needs. Over several days at high altitude, your body adjusts to the lower amount of oxygen in the air.
Many people travel from sea level to mountain altitudes of 6,000 to 10,000 feet and start vigorous physical activity right away. Not giving the body time to adjust to the higher elevation can cause altitude sickness.
Certain health factors increase the risk of altitude sickness. These include:
- Chronic lung problems such as asthma or emphysema
- Drinking too much alcohol
- A history of previous altitude sickness
Many people who are physically fit assume they won’t get altitude sickness because they are in good shape. However, being in good shape does not protect against altitude sickness.
Pulmonary or cerebral altitude edema may start out as a milder form of altitude sickness. It may then worsen into one of these more serious problems. But sometimes the edema occurs without the usual symptoms of mountain sickness.
What are the symptoms?
With altitude sickness, you may first feel like you have the flu or a hangover. You may have:
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea or vomiting
- Trouble sleeping
- Trouble breathing during exercise
If you have pulmonary edema, excess fluid builds up in your lungs. You may become short of breath and start coughing. It may become very hard for you to breathe. You may cough up pink mucous.
When you have high-altitude cerebral edema, your brain swells. You may become confused and disoriented. You may feel weak, lose your sense of balance, or have trouble seeing.
How can I prevent altitude sickness on the trek?
To prevent altitude sickness:
- Get to Cusco a few days early to give your body some time to get used to the altitude. Ease into activity slowly, allowing your body to adjust.
- Drink plenty of fluids such as water or coca tea. Coca tea has been used since ancient times to help prevent altitude sickness. Leaves from the COCA PLANT contain alkaloids which helps bring oxygen into your blood, helping your body avoid the negative effects of altitude sickness.
- Avoid drinking a lot of alcohol and coffee. They will cause you to urinate more often and become dehydrated.
- Avoid smoking. Smoking makes it more difficult for your body to get oxygen.Avoid sleeping pills. They may cause shallow breathing at night, making it more difficult for your body to absorb oxygen while you sleep.
- Remember the trek to Machu Picchu is not a race. Even those in the best shape will suffer from altitude sickness when they get to the top of the mountain too quickly. Go slowly, it will give your body time to adjust to the mountain.
- Your healthcare provider may prescribe medicines, such as are acetazolamide and dexamethasone, to help prevent altitude sickness. Take the medicine before you get to a high altitude. Continue to take it while you are at high altitude.
- You must remember that this is your holiday and you do not want to stress out about the possibility of getting sick from the mountains. Do everything slowly. Drink lots of water. And enjoy the coca tea. If anything does happen and you unfortunately get sick, let your guide know right away – all Ausangate Peru guides are trained in how to help you get through it.