Altitude Sickness 101
On my recent trip to Peru, in particular to Cusco and Machu Picchu, I was extremely worried about the effects of altitude sickness. Cusco is about 11,000 feet above sea level and Machu Picchu around 7,900 feet above sea level. I was born in Florida, currently live in NYC, and have lived at sea level my entire life—a prime candidate for altitude sickness. I have gotten forms of altitude sickness at much lower heights, including Park City, UT and in Montana last year, so I began doing my due diligence to prepare myself for the seemingly inevitable.
Through some combination of supplements and remedies, I actually found that I was mostly fine during this trip, as were my travel companions who used the same remedies. This is in contrast to other friends that had recently visited Cusco and had experienced much worse forms of altitude sickness.
So don’t let the fear of altitude sickness stop you from traveling, just be sure to prepare yourself properly for what’s to come. As long as you take a few precautions and listen to your body, you should be fine!
What is altitude sickness?
Altitude sickness (also medically known as acute mountain sickness or AMS) is brought on by climbing to a higher altitude too quickly without allowing time for your body to adjust to the changes in air pressure and oxygen level. The air above 8,000 feet is “thinner” meaning that each breath you take contains less oxygen than what you’re used to. When your body doesn’t have time to adjust to the lower oxygen levels at higher altitudes, it increases its breathing rate in an attempt to boost the blood’s oxygen, though this is not enough to return it to normal levels.
Dizziness and lightheadedness
Shortness of breath
Nausea and vomiting
Sleep problems (insomnia)
Loss of appetite
A general loss of energy
Altitude sickness is not related to age or sex and anyone can be susceptible to it. If you have experienced altitude sickness in the past, the likelihood of getting it again is higher. And of course those who live at lower altitudes are more susceptible than those that live higher up in the first place. That said, people with known heart or lung issues may be more vulnerable and should consult their doctor before traveling to significantly high altitudes.
Altitude sickness generally starts affecting people around 8,000 feet or higher, but everyone is different, so you just never know until you’re there.
What can you do to prevent altitude sickness?
The only true way to avoid altitude sickness entirely and acclimate is to ascend slowly, giving yourself several days per every thousand feet to adjust. However, many people don’t have the time or means to adjust their travel accordingly, as we did not for my trip to Peru, and thus other measures can be taken.
While it’s clear I would not make a particularly good scientist—having tried many different remedies all at once, I have no way of knowing which one made the difference—the point is that something must have helped during my time in the Andes Mountains. I experienced a few minor effects of the high altitude, but I was by no means as sick as I have been in the past or as my friends were on similar vacations. If you are concerned about getting sick, it certainly won’t hurt to try these methods as well for yourself as they may just make the difference and none of them has any negative side effects.
Two of the main things I tried that worked for me were:
The main ingredient in these pills is ginkgo biloba, which is known to increase blood flow, enabling it to cope better with decreased atmospheric oxygen levels (see scientific study here). They also contain rhodiola, alpha-lipoic acid (ALA), vitamin C, and vitamin E, all of which are linked to helping the body resist stressors, protect cells from free radical damage, and recover homeostasis. These supplements are meant to help boost the saturation of oxygen in your bloodstream and maximize your metabolism, “so you feel as…healthy at high altitude as you do at near sea level.”
Yes, chlorophyll, the green stuff found in plants. Studies have shown that chlorophyll can increase the amount of red blood cells in your system; the more red blood cells there are, the more opportunities for oxygen to be absorbed, thereby reducing the effects of altitude sickness.
In addition to these supplements, which I began taking 48 hours ahead of my trip to Cusco, I also drank a ton of water! It’s really important to stay hydrated to help your body maintain its best defenses and get back to normal as quickly as possible. According to doctors, you should drink 3-4 quarts of water every day.
Further, I slept every night with my feet elevated. A friend of my mom’s who has traveled extensively her whole life suggested this one. I didn't find a ton of writing to back this up, but at an inherent level it makes sense as it helps direct blood flow towards your heart and head where it is most needed.
And one of the most basic rules of altitude sickness—take it easy and rest often! Every time I felt even slightly winded, I’d take a break and take deep breaths to slow my breathing and heart rate.
What can you do to alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness?
Drink lots of water! It is important to stay hydrated.
Take ibuprofen every 4-6 hours. This can help with your headaches and some of the weakness attributed to altitude sickness.
Avoid consuming alcohol and other medications, like sleeping pills. The effects of these substances are enhanced at higher altitude and can thus have dangerous effects. Not worth the risk.
Avoid consuming greasy foods. Your immune system will be weakened and you want to be eating a diet that will help to boost your health, not harm it further.
No smoking. This should be obvious, but just saying.
Take oxygen shots (small plastic tubes filled with oxygen). These are sold in most pharmacies and are even available at many five star hotels at high altitude areas. Because they are so small, however, many claim them to be a hoax, so if you really need oxygen you may need to visit an oxygen bar or a hospital that has real tanks of oxygen.
What to look out for with altitude sickness—these signs could point to more serous life-threatening illness!
HAPE (high altitude pulmonary oedema) and HACE (high altitude cerebral oedema) are more serious forms of altitude sickness and can be fatal within hours if not treated. If you experience shortness of breath while resting, confusion, clumsiness, a cough that produces a frothy substance, and especially loss of consciousness, descend immediately if possible and seek medical attention!
**Please note, I am not a doctor, so none of what I have written can be taken as medical advice. I am writing solely from the knowledge of what I have researched and experienced. If you have any serious medical concerns, please consult a professional.