Altitude Sickness – Symptoms, Prevention & Treatment
Watch out for those heights when traveling in South America… the ones you cannot see but should definitely know about i.e. altitude.
Altitude sickness – also called Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) or Soroche – is a risk when traveling to areas that are over 2,400 metres (8,000 feet).
Many areas in South America meet that criteria such as: La Paz (Bolivia); Quito (Ecuador); Cusco (Peru); “The World´s Most Dangerous Road” in Bolivia; San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) and most mountainous regions.
Heading into the Andes in Venezuela (12,000 feet +) for a bird-watching tour? You need to understand the risks of altitude sickness outlined below.
Important to remember is that anyone can get altitude sickness. Those who are young and physically fit have the same risk potential as an elderly or unfit person. With common sense and taking basic precautions, the chances of becoming ill can be lessened and the potential to experience the serious conditions High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) (see below) practically eliminated.
Symptoms of Altitude Sickness
At higher elevations it is more difficult to get the amount of oxygen from the air that your body has become accustomed to (from living at lower elevations). Less oxygen in the blood stream means less oxygen getting into your cells causing symptoms such as: throbbing headache, lightheadedness, feeling fatigued, naseau (may vomit), dizziness, trouble sleeping and waking up during the night not feeling well.
If you begin to experience any of these symptoms, go down 1,500 to 2,000 feet right away to see if your symptoms get better. Keep going down – or stay put and rest – until your symptoms go away completely.
Prevention of Altitude Sickness
- Take time traveling to higher elevation areas, especially if you live at or near sea level and are visiting an elevation over 3,000 meters (10,000 feet).
- Try to sleep in a lower elevation area at night from where you were in the day. If you hike to an elevation of 10,000 feet, afterwards head down the mountain or volcano and stay in a hostal or hotel that is at 8,000 feet.
- Stop climbing, traveling, or whatever you were doing when you notice yourself becoming ill. Stay put or move to a lower elevation area and rest until the symptoms go away.
- Never ascend further when you are not feeling well, from whatever suspected cause – and that includes a hangover! A hangover can mimick the symptoms of altitude sickness. Rest until you feel normal.
- Drink plenty of fluids
Treatment of Altitude Sickness
The primary treatment is to descend (or rest and limit activity if unable to descend) to a lower elevation area until the symptoms remit. Do not ascend further unless you are feeling back to normal. If symptoms worsen (see below), seek medical attention immediately.
What´s the worse that can happen if you ignore the advice above? You can become very ill and require hospitalization. Not paying attention to your body and acute symptoms of altitude sickness can lead to more serious health effects from lower levels of oxygen getting to your cells such as High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). Both are rare but serious conditions that can be fatal.
Warning signs of altitude sickness that is severe include the symptoms listed above plus: not being able to walk straight; feeling faint; coughing; mental confusion; blue or grey lips or fingernails; difficulty breathing and hearing a crumpled bag sound when trying to take a breath. The affected person needs to seek medical attention immediately.
Thinking of moving to South America? Want to take a year-long sabbatical traveling? Get your FREE online Living in South America Guide (country-specific).
Photograph at top of the page of an Ecuadorian eagle by Dr. Carlos Costales Terán