As many as 50% of people who go to high altitude destinations suffer from altitude sickness. In most cases, altitude sickness is mild and harmless. Nevertheless, it does a great job ruining beautiful moments, so you better be prepared.
What is altitude sickness?
Air is thinner at high altitudes, causing you to get less oxygen at high altitudes. When you go too high too fast, your body can’t adapt and get as much oxygen as it needs. It mostly shows above an altitude of 2.500 m (8.100 ft) or higher. Symptoms of altitude sickness are: having a (throbbing) headache, sleeping bad, eating less or lacking appetite, feeling weak, feeling dizzy and/or having stomach issues/vomiting. No matter age, gender or fitness level; anyone can suffer from it. Better safe than sorry, but as soon as you feel (one of) the symptoms pop up, take action.
How to deal with altitude sickness?
Before being at high altitude:
Acclimatize: spend two nights or more at each rise of 1.000 m
Ascend slowly: give your body time to adapt by not ascending more than 500 m a day
Take medication: acetazolamide is the only drug known to help against altitude sickness. Start to take medication 24 hours before ascent. Watch out though: it can have minor side effects, such as tingling fingers or feet and a funny taste in the mouth. Some people don’t respond well to it, so it might be a good idea to check in advance at home or in a safe place how your body reacts. Make sure to hydrate enough when you take this medication.
During being at high altitude:
Descend: if possible go lower again to give your body time to adapt, or at least stop ascending.
Continue to take medication: but don’t start taking painkillers! Painkillers only cover the symptoms, not treat the altitude sickness itself.
Take oxygen: when in an organized tour, check in advance if the guide takes oxygen with him. If not, or when on your own, take a small bottle of oxygen with you.
Chew coca leafs/drink coca tea: at high altitudes most vendors, locals and guides have it. Not scientifically proven, but I’ve seen (and experienced myself) that drinking coca tea during the day and chewing while hiking can help. Note that coca is not a drug; it’s the raw material. It takes a chemical process (and a bunch of nasties) to actually make it into the drug.
Take care: by sleeping, resting and drinking enough water.