Disclaimer: The information that follows is written from our travel experiences and research done on the topic. It should not be construed as medical advice, in any shape or form. Please consult a physician before travel, if such travel involves high altitude destinations.
The JJ family is getting ready to travel to the Canadian Rockies in the next few weeks and one of the concerns we have is the elevation of the Rockies. Dallas lies at an elevation of 430 feet above sea level whereas Banff, our first stop is at just over 4500 feet and Lake Louise at 5200 feet, a good 4200 feet to 4800 feet higher than what we are used to. Of course, these elevations are not as serious as the ones we faced in Macchu Picchu (7972 feet) and Cusco (11,150 feet), heights at which altitude sickness comes into play.
At higher altitudes, the air becomes thinner resulting in lower barometric pressure and oxygen levels, making it difficult for travelers to get adequate amounts of oxygen circulating in their blood stream.
This is a big risk for travelers:
- who are new to a high altitude area
- who climb to higher levels more rapidly
- who are dealing with elevations greater than 9000 feet
- who are more physically active at higher elevations
- younger travelers
Altitude sickness can manifest at lower elevations like the ones in the Canadian Rockies.
So how would we know if we are experiencing mountain or altitude sickness?
As with Missy JJ, who felt dizzy and light-headed for a few hours after reaching Urubamba (11,100 feet) in Peru, mild acute mountain sickness or AMS can cause dizziness, headache, nausea with or without vomiting, light-headedness, decreased appetite and fatigue. Symptoms can start anywhere from 6-12 hours to about 24 hours after reaching the destination. (And improve with proper care over the next 12-24 hours or longer). In moderate cases, the symptoms may worsen with time, may progress to difficulties with breathing or coordination. Travelers will need to seek medical help right away and may even need to return to a lower elevation.
In severe cases, travelers may experience HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) or fluid in lungs from lack of oxygen or even worse HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema) where the brain is swollen and under pressure. But these would be the worst case scenarios. From what I have heard, travelers generally tend to experience mild symptoms.
How can we mitigate the risk of altitude sickness and / or prevent it?
- Allow adequate time to adjust to the higher elevations, even a 12 hour to 24 hour time span is sufficient. We cancelled our trip to Pisac Sunday market and stayed at our hotel the rest of the day in Urubamba. Missy JJ felt better as the day wore on and was symptom-free the rest of the trip.
- Plan a lighter schedule for the first 24 hours giving body time to adjust to the lower barometric pressure.
- Drink plenty of fluids before and during the trip, staying well hydrated
- By the same token, avoid alcohol as well as smoking
- Eat small meals often but rich in carbs and calories
- Get plenty of sleep
- The general rule of thumb is not to climb more than 1000 feet per day. Best yet to climb higher but return to a lower elevation to rest, if at all possible
- Dressing properly for the weather helps, either multiple layers or lightweight, breathable clothes, based on where you are traveling to.
- Consider other factors like sunscreen, lip balms etc to help protect from the sun exposure at such elevations.
What medicines did we carry on our trip to Peru?
- Over the counter pain medicines, like Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and Ibuprofen (Motrin)
- Anti-nausea prescription, Promethazine
- Acetazolamide for moderate symptoms, although we were lucky and didn’t have to use it. If you are traveling to a high altitude (over 10,000 feet) and going to be very physically active, may be worthwhile to consider taking the Acetazolamide ahead of time (like a malaria medicine for prophylaxis). Discuss with your physician before you leave town.
We were lucky that we didn’t have to use any of the medications we carried. Lot of fluids, timely meals, fresh air, sunshine and rest went a long way in helping to settle Miss JJ’s symptoms.
What should one do if symptoms occur?
The short answer is it all depends on the severity of symptoms.
- Rest, rest, rest
- Adequate sleep
- Lots of fluids and proper meals
- Return to lower elevations, if able to safely
- Medications as mentioned above
- Seek medical help right away, if symptoms worsen or persist despite initial treatment.
- Let a friend or fellow traveler know how you feel, so someone can keep an eye on you. Severe difficulties in breathing or with consciousness and balance may indicate onset of HAPE and HACE, these are emergencies and can only be safely managed in hospital settings. Hence seeking medical help right away is paramount.
Most travelers can and do manage altitude sickness well enough to enjoy their trips. A little bit of knowledge and planning can go a long way in overcoming the effects of altitude. So you can conquer mountains and exult in reaching the summit safely!
Safe travels, y’all!