A Natural High: 6 Tips for Preventing Altitude Sickness

Andes Mountains in PeruTravel takes us to the deepest oceans, most crowded cities and obscure corners around the planet. But when it takes us to the highest mountains, there is more than just a plane ticket and backpack to consider.

Altitude sickness—the body’s reaction to thinning oxygen above 10,000 feet—can leave travelers feeling sick, tired, in pain and frustrated with their experiences. But that’s not to say you can’t trek through the Himalayas or journey up Mt. Kilimanjaro. With a bit of foresight before you travel to higher elevations and self-restraint once you’ve reached the thinning air, you can help control the side effects of this nasty ailment. So buy that plane ticket and strap on your bag … here are six things you can do to help keep altitude sickness at bay the next time you plan to venture to the highest reaches of the earth.

1. Get in shape. While altitude sickness does not discriminate against anyone in particular, those who are physically fit before traveling to a higher altitude may be able to better cope because of an increased lung capacity. If you will be hiking, practice strenuous hikes at a lower altitude to get your body used to the strain without the added stress of thin air.

2. Acclimate to the elevation. Don’t go too high too fast. When traveling to destinations 10,000 feet or higher, don’t hit the ground running. Instead, spend at least a day or two taking it easy at a moderately high elevation before going any higher in order to get used to the thin air. Take short, leisurely walks and rest when you need to. Giving your body the time it needs to adjust to a high altitude will make ascending higher easier.

3. Drink at least six to eight glasses of water a day. Hydrate early and often. Drink lots of water en route to your destination and once you have arrived. If you are hiking, wear a camel pack to ensure water is always at hand. Drinking alcohol at higher elevations will make you drunk faster than at lower altitudes, so curb your alcohol intake, especially during the first few days.

4. Climb high. Sleep low. If you will be ascending to 15,000 feet or more, spend more time becoming acclimated to the elevation. Take short hikes during the day, then descend to sleep at night for three or four days before attempting climbing higher. Don’t push your body to cover more than 1,000 feet in elevation per day, especially when you’ve first arrived.

5. Eat well. Foods high in carbohydrates have been shown to help fight off some of the symptoms of altitude sickness. While you shouldn’t overstuff yourself, this also isn’t the time or place to begin a new diet plan. Taking antioxidants (vitamins A, C and E) can also reduce the effects of altitude sickness.

6. Accelerate acclimatization. Though it is best to naturally acclimate to high elevations, there are alternative substances to help travelers adjust to extreme altitudes. Acetazolamide, a drug sold under the name Diamox, helps cut recovery time in half, but you shouldn’t drink alcohol when taking it. Ginkgo biloba, an herbal supplement, has also been shown to decrease the effects of altitude sickness. In South America, many people chew on or make tea from coca leaves. Though illegal in many countries, coca leaves have been used for centuries by people combating altitude sickness while traveling in the Andes.

10 Responses to “A Natural High: 6 Tips for Preventing Altitude Sickness”

  1. Candice

    I love how easily your writing flows, and your direct, easy-to-understand guide. Thanks!

    Reply
  2. AdventureRob

    I climbed Mount Kinabalu earlier this year and found point 2 the most helpful for me, taking it easy and letting the body get used to the climate helps a lot. Didn’t realise there was drugs to help acclimatise.

    Reply
  3. Adri

    I found this very useful for my next trip!
    Thank you Joanna!

    Reply
  4. Gray

    This is terrific advice, JoAnna! Thanks.

    Reply
  5. Andy Jarosz

    Good advice JoAnna – thanks! (We tried the coca tea in Peru and I can vouch for it)

    Reply
  6. Sophie

    Lots of good, easy-to-read info here, JoAnna!

    Reply
  7. Leigh

    Great tips but people should be aware that EVEN if they have done all of the above including taking Diamox they can get altitude sickness. I speak from experience climbing Kiliminjaro and sleeping at 18,700′ (and I did the longest acclimatization possible)

    Many doctors who have no experience in the mountains are uncomfortable prescribing Diamox. My daughter recently had a doctor who said it was no longer available – that occurred 6 weeks ago(April 2010) It’s a drug used in treating glaucoma so some inexperienced doctors don’t understand that it’s the drug of choice for altitude. There is another steroid type drug- dexamethasone which we took high on the mountain and it cured acute altitude sickness in under 6 hours and I mean 100% cured. However both drugs have contraindications – sulfa allergies for diamox and diabetes for dexamethasone, so you need to know what you’re doing.

    Didn’t mean to spout for so long………

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      You are absolutely right, Leigh, and I’m glad you brought this point up. If anyone wants to use drugs to help altitude sickness, they absolutely should consult a doctor who is experienced in such matters.

      Thank you very much for your comment.

      Reply
  8. santafetraveler

    Great info. It is important to note that people can get altitude sickness at lower altitudes than 10,000 ft. I live in Santa Fe, NM, we are at 7.000 feet and people do get sick here. One of the reasons I think is the dryness here. As you mentioned, keeping hydrated is important and it is more of a challenge here. Also, avoid coffee and alcohol as they seem to make symptoms worse.

    Reply

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