Headache, vomiting, dizziness….altitude sickness can put a damper on any good party. As a previous resident of La Paz, Bolivia – one of the highest cities in the world – I fought the good fight against altitude sickness for just under three months. But I managed to pick up some pretty good battle tactics along the way.
- Pop those pills. Stock up on Ibuprofen before you head out into the field and ascend those great heights. A couple of ibuprofen before you head up can soothe a lot of the inevitable symptoms, and it’s pain killing properties can help obliterate that nasty pounding headache before it even gets a chance. Plus ACTUAL SCIENCE agrees: a 2012 study by Stanford University School of Medicine. “Ibuprofen can prevent 26% of cases of altitude sickness and help people who are without symptoms to stay without symptoms.” Buying a pack and keeping it handy will be the best 50p you ever spend.
- Take It Slow: Altitude sickness is at its most aggressive when your altitude increases suddenly, for example when taking a plane or teleporting. There is a scientific explanation for this, but in essence when you go from zero to 8,000 ft above sea level in a short space of time, your body is given no time to adjust and immediately goes into “WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING” mode. This means the symptoms hit you straight away and with full force. Gradual ascension, like driving or taking a train, can really help with this; unless you’re like me and experience car sickness, in which case your pussy body will go into “WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING” mode when you’re going at 60mph down a motorway.
- Diamox: I wish I knew about Diamox before I went to Bolivia. It’s the only freely available medical treatment out there that can actively stop the symptoms of altitude sickness appearing, rather than than just reducing their effect when they do appear. These are available by gaining a prescription from your doctor (I’m unsure of the prices, but if you’re from the USA, I would assume you probably have to mortgage a property to buy a pack. Such is my understanding of the American medical care system), and for full prevention start taking them the day before you ascend.
- Coca Leaves or Coca Tea: If you’re heading to an Andean country like Peru, Bolivia or Ecuador, cocaine, sorry, COCA LEAVES, will be available, cheap and good for a quick fix. I found that the effectiveness of chewing coca leaves tended to vary from person to person, but it’s traditionally used by locals to combat fatigue, hunger and acts as a mild stimulant, meaning you can really extend the hours you spend underground working in a squalid silver mine. What worked for me was coca tea. Something about it just felt warm, nourishing and soothing, and especially helped to negate the nausea that I felt so much of the time.
- Slow Down: When I first arrived in La Paz, it took a while for any symptoms to hit me. “I feel like I could run a mile!” I remember boasting to one of my friends who was feeling a little shaky. Because I was on a volunteer programme, we had to settle into our new home and meet our team leaders for lunch in the afternoon, after having a brief tour of the city. “I feel like…I could run a mile!” I insisted, after sitting down for lunch, a lot less convincing this time. All the exertion and walking around had taken its toll. I felt like I was on a ship in the midst of a stormy sea, like the whole restaurant was floating up and down. I felt sea sick.When you first arrive at altitudes this high, one of the worst things you can do is exert yourself. Take it easy. Rest when you need to rest. Don’t feel embarrassed. You’ll feel a lot worse when you’re vomiting that day’s breakfast all over your brand new llama wool jumper.
- Stay Hydrated: Dehydration worsens the symptoms. Drink water. A LOT of water. You know when you go pee and it’s the same colour as the water that was already there? That’s what you’re aiming for here. At the same time, try to lay off the alcohol and cigarettes for a couple of days, or until the symptoms wear off. Both increase risk of dehydration, so hold off on attending one of those famous Himalaya keg parties until you acclimatize.
- Give It Time: Like a broken heart, a UK student loan debt, and the common cold, the only proven cure for altitude sickness is time. It should start to ease up after 2 – 3 days, but if you’re one of those lucky people (like me!) where you seem to feel permanently ill even after some time has passed, it’s best to see a doctor.
- Be aware – but don’t panic: Altitude sickness isn’t very nice, but rarely is it dangerous. As with most unpleasant situations, one of the worst things you can do is panic and over analyse. Stay calm, drink water, take what medicine you have and wait it out. Only if you’re spitting pink saliva, experiencing memory loss or confusion, or seeing crazy crap that’s not there, is it probably time to get out and come back down to earth.
Have you ever experienced the joys of altitude sickness? It’s a barrel of laughs, isn’t it? Let me know if I’ve missed off any tips in the comment section below.