Altitude sickness: All you need to know and how to avoid it

Posted by exploor peru on

Cities: Cusco, Huaraz, Arequipa // Category: Tips to travel in Peru // Reading time: 6 min  

I honestly have to say that I am a bit worried about that altitude sickness everyone is talking about. Especially as I am only a few days away from arriving at the Peruvian mountains. Filled with emotions to discover and enjoy all these beautiful landscapes and adventures, I decided to make a little research and to share my results with you. I asked locals (thanks to other contacts I have) and people I know who have been at high altitude levels already. My objective was to find out more about the altitude sickness and how to plan a trip to the Peruvian mountains such as Cusco, Huaraz or Arequipa.

This article will help you understand what the altitude sickness is, what syndromes occur and what to do to avoid it. Thus, afterward, you should know what to do and be perfectly prepared so that you can enjoy your stay in the Peruvian highlands, at least without being affected by the altitude sickness.

 

So first of all, what is the altitude sickness?

 

The altitude sickness is a physical discomfort that usually occurs when visiting a place located at a higher altitude. In Peru destinations at higher altitude are for example Cusco, Arequipa, Ayacucho, Huaraz or Puno.

Lago titicaca Peru
Foto: Lago Titicaca - Puno

Most travelers who are affected by this altitude sickness are those who travel by air, coming from a place with high temperatures or a lower altitude. These travelers are the most likely to suffer from the mountain sickness because of the quick climate change.

 

What are the syndromes and what can I do about it?

 

"The first 48 hours will be like hell". Sorry, I didn't want to scare you off. This is a quote from someone who actually suffered from the altitude sickness. After landing, it will directly affect your body; a discomfort such as severe headaches, nausea and stomach heaviness or constipation, vomiting and joint swelling. Doesn't sound like great holidays, right?

 

But don't worry, there is always a solution and in this case, it's all about preparation. You just need to follow certain tips to avoid the altitude sickness. Those tips are recommendations from locals and past travelers who enjoyed a great (or not so great time) in the mountains and in the highlands of Peru. Some recommendations to avoid the altitude sickness are:

  • Always try to eat low-fat dishes, such as soups
  • Have some sweets with you (I will tell you more about that later)
  • Keep in mind to drink a coca tea (mate de coca) when you arrive and whenever you have the possibility to drink it.

Next to take your 1 - 2 days of acclimatization at around 2,500 - 3,000 meters altitude or pills, the coca tea made of coca leaves is recommended as a great support to keep you away from this sickness. All you have to do is to dip those coca leaves into hot water, wait a few minutes and add some sweetener if you want. You will see, this drink will be your best ally throughout your trip. You'll find those coca leaves also in form of biscuits or sweets in every tourist shop or kiosk. Perfect as "on-the-go" snacks. No matter where you travel to, whether you are visiting Machu Picchu for the first time or whether you are enjoying a tour in Colca and Arequipa, coca leaves will always be available. The tea is a typical drink of the highlands. But attention! It is possible that a drug test will turn out positive, even as the leaves only contain a very small amount of cocaine. Thus, in case you'll have to take a future drug test, try to avoid any contact with the coca tea or any related product. There are other options I'll tell you about in a bit.

In case you still would like to try the coca leaves, you can also use the pure leaves as chewing gum like a local and spit it out after you no longer want to chew on them (best in a bin that's close). Locals already have the habit to chew them the entire day even as they are used to the height. It's part of their culture and they say it allows them to focus better.



mate de coca cusco

Foto: Mate de Coca by Shaw Harquail

More tips to avoid the altitude sickness (soroche)

The average duration of the altitude sickness is around two to three days. This is normal as the acclimatization time for a common traveler in Peru is approximately two days. To keep you away from those two to three days in bed there are a few other good recommendations to prevent the altitude sickness. Due to the high altitude your glucose level drops. Bring sweets such as caramel or fruits and your glucose level stays as happy as it should be.

Further, there is medicine, such as Soroche pills, that you can use against the altitude sickness. Every pharmacy in Lima or elsewhere shall be able to sell you those. Let me present you the two best pills against the altitude sickness:

  • Soroche pills: eases the symptoms of mountain sickness
  • Gravol: relieves you from dizziness and nausea
  • Diamox: most recommended pill to decrease headache, tiredness, nausea, dizziness, and shortness of breath

Please make sure to take the right dose and sometimes it is recommended to take them 1-2 days in advance before you leave to the high altitude location. Thus, you should search for a pharmacy or just ask the receptionist of your hotel if they actually have the pills themselves. In case you travel straight to Cusco, get the pills as quickly as possible. And always make sure to read the instructions so that you take the right dose.

Considering all this (and of course, making use of the recommendations), the altitude sickness should not be a problem for your while you're Peru. In case you have any other great experience or recommendation, I would be happy to see you sharing it as a comment.

I hope this research helps you just as it helped me. Now, it is time to go on planning, for example with what to pack for your journey in Peru?  

¡Buen viaje!


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11 comments

Created on , posted by Thomas

Wow dieser Tipp war unglaublich wertvoll !!!! Zum Glück bin ich noch auf eure Seite bzw. Blog gestoßen, sonst hätte ich die ersten Tage im Hotel verbracht. Danke Exploor!

Created on , posted by Jakob

Diese Tipps waren soooo hilfreich. Ich sitze gerade am Flughafen von Cusco, bevor es in Richtung Zürich geht und ich wollte mich für eure Hilfe bedanken. Gut das ich diese Tipps angewendet habe, ansonsten hätte ich meine Zeit in Peru im Bett verbracht. Danke Exploor!

Created on , posted by Jonathan

Thanks for sending us the helpful article, Erik. This is really useful as I am a pilot and I can’t afford to have problems with “coca” in my urine for the regular drug tests and I also don’t want to spend 4 days sick in bed when I’m in Cusco lol. Take care and see you soon in Cusco!

Created on , posted by Brock McIntosh

In 2012, researchers began studying the use of ibuprofen as prevention and treatment for high altitude sickness. In 2017, a meta-analysis of those studies was conducted (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5478153/). It found that taking a dose of 600 mg of ibuprofen 3 times daily significantly reduced the chances of getting high altitude and the severity of the sickness for those who did get sick while taking the ibuprofen. It’s cheaper and more readily available than some of the other high altitude pills out there, and its side effects aren’t as bad. And as always, drink lots of water!


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