The altitude sickness, soroche or acute mountain sickness is a disorder that responds to the lack of adaptation of the organism to the lack of oxygen due to the altitude. It usually occurs when climbing to a high altitude in a not very progressive or fast way. It usually occurs from 2,400 meters and affects, above all, people who are not used to living in areas with high altitude, usually below 900 meters above sea level. If you are going to travel to mountainous countries such as Peru, Bolivia or Nepal and you are going to visit places located at high altitude, such as Machu Picchu, the Salar de Uyuni or the Himalayas, you should be aware of altitude sickness, how to prevent and combat it and what kind of symptoms it usually presents.
At IATI Seguros we want to give you some basic information about altitude sickness, its symptoms and how you can prevent it. In any case, it is advisable that you visit a doctor before your trip and, if you have any problems, seek medical attention as soon as possible. To do this, it is essential that you take with you a reliable travel medical insurance such as those that IATI offers you.
Follow us and find out all about altitude sickness: how to prevent it, how to combat it and its symptoms.
Altitude sickness during the Salkantay Trek in Peru
Altitude sickness (MAM) can ruin your trip to Machu Picchu. Often people who want to do the Inca Trail or Salkantay are in a hurry and fly from Lima, which is at sea level. Then they find themselves in Cusco at an altitude of 3399 masl. To give you a perspective, mountaineers like to climb the so called “tres mil”, mountains at 3000 masl. You can understand that Cusco is high and from there you climb even higher because the Salkantay trek crosses the Salkantay pass (4600 m). There are some good “four thousand”.
Keep in mind that there are treks that go quite a bit higher than that, such as the ascent of Huayna Potosi in Bolivia, which reaches 6000 meters above sea level. However, at 3000 meters the symptoms can appear and the dangers of altitude sickness should be taken seriously. Our trekking experts always advise those interested in the Salkantay trek to spend at least one day in Cusco, ideally two days. Ideally two days, and why not? There is plenty to do. It is a big city and spending some time there will help you get used to the altitude. Our experts are well aware of the dangers of altitude sickness. They have written blog posts about MAM while trekking in Nepal and know not to rush up Mt. Kilimanjaro. There is one golden rule that applies during high altitude trekking: Listen to your body.
What is altitude sickness
Hypoxia is the name given to the lack of oxygen in the human body and is the main cause of altitude sickness or soroche. Since the atmospheric pressure decreases as the altitude increases and there is less oxygen and nitrogen, the alveoli of the lungs cannot transport as much oxygen to the blood, which can lead to dehydration, discomfort and even death due to pulmonary or cerebral edema.
Some people are more susceptible than others and there are also factors such as physical activity, the speed of the ascent or the initial altitude from which you start.
Therefore, when talking about altitude sickness, it is very important to know what symptoms we can feel, how to prevent it and how to fight it.
What are the symptoms of altitude sickness?
In most cases, the symptoms of altitude sickness are temporary and reduce as the person acclimatizes to the altitude. In general, symptoms of altitude sickness usually appear when ascending from a low altitude to places above 2,000 meters above sea level in a sudden manner. In addition, people who are accustomed to living below 900 meters often notice symptoms a few hours after reaching high altitude, especially during the night.
In general, the symptoms of altitude sickness are:
- Dizziness or vomiting
- Weakness or tiredness
- Lack of appetite
Sleep disorders: drowsiness, insomnia or episodes of sudden nocturnal dyspnea, that is, waking up abruptly with a choking sensation.
If you are at high altitude, there may be cases of swelling of the hands, feet and face, increased heart rate or difficulty seeing or walking.
The most serious consequences of altitude sickness are altitude pulmonary edema and altitude cerebral edema. In these cases, the outcome can be fatal if you do not descend to lower altitudes quickly.
In case you feel some of these symptoms of altitude sickness that we have told you about and cannot be explained by other reasons, we encourage you to go to the section on how to combat altitude sickness or soroche.
How to prevent altitude sickness
The main way to prevent or avoid altitude sickness is acclimatization, that is, the progressive ascent to adapt slowly to the hypoxia of altitude. Even so, it is important to know that no matter how much an acclimatization schedule is followed, it is possible that symptoms of altitude sickness may occur. The International Union of Mountaineering Associations (UIAA) recommends a maximum daily altitude increase of 500 meters once you reach 3,000 meters above sea level, taking a rest day without ascending every 3 or 4 days.
A good way to prevent altitude sickness is to stay hydrated by drinking at least 4 to 5 liters of water a day and to maintain a varied diet rich in carbohydrates. It is advisable to avoid alcohol and tobacco and very large meals.
Another golden rule to prevent altitude sickness is to rest. Sleep at least 8 hours and do not try to make great physical efforts.
In the event that you are going to travel to countries where people often suffer from altitude sickness, it is not superfluous to go to the doctor to see if you can take any medication to prevent altitude sickness. Do not self-medicate, consult your doctor, especially if you have any allergies.
A natural remedy that has been used for centuries by populations such as the Peruvians are coca leaves. You can take them in mate (in tea) during breakfast or dinner, in candies or directly chewing them or leaving them to one side of the mouth until it secretes all its juice.
There is a saying: “Drink before you are thirsty, eat before you are hungry, wrap up warm before you are cold and rest before you are exhausted”. Follow it to the letter to prevent altitude sickness.
The first recommendation is to reduce the body’s pace, that is, walk more slowly, climb the steps one by one, avoiding at all times overtaxing the body, which is already in a state of crisis due to lack of oxygen.
The human body normally gets used to altitude after 2 or 3 days, this varies depending on many factors, such as age, physical condition and tolerance to lack of oxygen. This gradual process is known as acclimatization, and once the body is used to it, physical activities can be carried out normally.
Diet is a very important factor to take into account if it is the first time you travel to high altitudes such as Cusco or if you are particularly sensitive to altitude sickness. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, Andean cereals such as kiwicha and quinoa helps the body to remain stable. Avoid at all times very spicy foods or those with a high fat content because digestion at high altitudes is different.
Stay hydrated by drinking water (2 or 3 liters per day per person) to successfully overcome the acclimatization stage.
The coca leaf was considered sacred by the Inca Empire and this was not only part of their beliefs but was based on the extraordinary natural qualities of the bush. Studies conducted on the coca leaf have shown that this plant besides possessing the alkaloid known as cocaine (less than 1% of the total), also has 15 other alkaloids, many of them are natural regulators of the body’s cycles, others are stimulants for the production of certain substances, which makes the coca leaf a great alternative if you want to calm the body suffering from altitude sickness.
There are pills called ‘Sorojchi Pills’ that one can buy in any pharmacy in Cusco without a prescription and that help significantly to reduce the most uncomfortable symptoms of altitude sickness (dizziness, fatigue, headache).
There are also oxygen tubes that one can buy in hotels or in some pharmacies. These oxygen tubes allow you to breathe as if you were at an altitude of 100 meters above sea level.
How to combat altitude sickness
In case you notice symptoms of altitude sickness, do not continue ascending, especially to sleep. If the symptoms of soroche get worse, you should descend and rest until they disappear or go to a doctor. In the latter case, the doctor will probably perform tests such as a blood test, a chest X-ray or an electrocardiogram. In many cases, they will prescribe oxygen and some medications for headache or insomnia.
Why does traveling by bus prevent altitude sickness?
There is a direct relationship between altitude sickness and the speed at which altitude changes. The sharper the change, the worse the symptoms manifest themselves. For this reason, traveling along the Andes and ascending gradually is the best way to avoid altitude sickness.
The route we propose in Peru Hop is ideal to do so because our buses travel making strategic stops in places that are hidden gems of Peru.
For example, Nazca is at 520 meters above sea level, while Arequipa is at 2,335 meters above sea level, but on our route we make a gradual ascent throughout the night and you can sleep in our comfortable buses. So, when you arrive in Arequipa you will be rested and more acclimatized to the altitude.
Places at higher altitude in the department of Cusco:
- Nevado Ausangate, located south of Cusco. Maximum elevation 6, 384 meters above sea level.
- Nevado Salkantay, located northeast of Cusco. Maximum elevation 6,261 meters above sea level.
- Inca Trail, Warmihuañuska pass or pass. Maximum elevation 4,200 masl.
- Abra Malaga, located southeast of Cusco. Maximum elevation 4,297 meters above sea level.
- Abra Pirhuayani, located southeast of Cusco. Maximum elevation 4,725 meters above sea level.