How to combat altitude sickness while traveling

During our Bolivian salt flats tour, the altitude changed from 1,706 feet above sea level in Chile to over 4000 feet above sea level. When your body is put in this situation, it can lead to altitude sickness. Although we had read about altitude sickness beforehand, we both thought we would never have any major problems due to the change in altitude. Turns out we would be completely wrong.

I remember going to the bathroom and finding traces of blood on the toilet paper. Unsure of what to do, I checked everyday to see if it persisted. At the same time, Albie would occasionally blow his nose and find blood lightly spattered of the tissue. For a few days, we kept these concerns to ourselves in fear of the unknown, until we were able to access the internet to quickly google the issue.

Once we both realized that we were suffering from altitude sickness and our bodies were adjusting to the lower levels of oxygen, we knew at that moment that altitude sickness should not be taken so lightly and that we should of been better prepared in case we were to ever experience any altitude sickness symptoms while traveling.

How common is altitude sickness?

Everyone who travels to a high altitude country will most likely experience one or more symptoms of altitude sickness. This is particularly evident for people who travel from low altitude to high attitude without allowing a gradual adjustment over time. It’s important to also point out that everyone will react differently to the altitude changes and it doesn’t matter how fit you are either. Sure you may be more prone to altitude sickness if you have a history of medical problems, but being fit doesn’t exclude you from having altitude sickness.

Some of the common altitude sickness symptoms include shortness of breathe, feeling faint, dizziness, the feeling of our lungs being compressed and headaches. We’ve personally experienced all of these and more during our time in South America.

It can be kinda scary to have these random symptoms, particularly if you are unsure of what to do or what’s causing them. While living and traveling around South America for the past 2 years, we’ve experienced our own fair share of altitude sickness. Though we were not prone to altitude sickness during our time in Santiago Chile, we definately experienced our fair share of altitude sickness while in Bolivia, Peru, the north of Chile and Ecuador.

5 tips on how to combat altitude sickness

Altitude sickness shouldn’t be taken lightly and so we’ve listed our top 5 tips from our own experience to help you prevent or at least minimize altitude sickness while you travel.

1. Enjoy some Coca

Coca leaves are used to combat signs of altitude sickness. Countries of high altitude like Bolivia will normally sell Coca lollies and Coca tea that can help combat altitude sickness. We drunk lots of free Coca tea from our hotel where we stayed while in La Paz Bolivia and recommend to have some every day, particularly if you are not feeling well. We experienced a lost of appetite and found that having Coca really helped prevent nausea and the dreaded headaches from ruining our Bolivian experience.

Pharmacies, small shops and local grocery stores will stock Coca products including candy, tea, and gum. If you want, you can always get them beforehand but it might be more expensive and difficult to find where you live. There are also prescription pills you can get from your doctor before coming to a high altitude country but in most cases this is unnecessary.

2. Drink lots of water and stay hydrated

Staying hydrated is so important! I remember having difficulties sleeping on the first two days in La Paz. I recall having shortness of breath and feeling like my lungs were being pushed down with a heavy weight making it difficult to breath. I also remember being really thirsty and having to wake up several times during the night to drink water. Later reading about attitude sickness, we found out that while you are in high altitudes, your brain expands to adjust to the low levels of oxygen and as a result, you can have persistent headaches throughout the day and night.

We found that having plenty of water helped with the headaches, shortness of breath and overall panic of having altitude sickness. We always like to bring with us a 1 liter bottle of water to help us stay hydrated. It’s easy to forget when you are excited about exploring and visiting new places, so bringing your own water gives that friendly reminder to keep your water levels up all day.

3. Plan your trip according to the altitude changes

If you plan to travel to multiple countries in South America, it may be a good idea to do a little research on the altitude levels of the places you want to visit. Going from a low altitude to a very high altitude suddenly, isn’t recommended. In fact, this can be the worst thing you can do to your body.

It’ better to gradually increase the altitude levels and adjust your travels according to this. You’ll most likely reduce the risk of getting altitude sickness and ensure that you have a good time traveling and experiencing what South America has to offer. Planning a day off at the beginning of your trip and spacing activities out can also help.

4. Take breaks when going uphill or when trekking and walking

Another common experience we had in Bolivia was the challenge of walking up steep hills. We also experienced this climbing up hundreds of stairs during our Mount Montana trek in Machu Picchu. Taking several breaks when you need it and drinking water helps.

If you start to feel light headed, dizzy or faint, remember to focus on taking deep breaths and try to relax and not stress out. Getting lots of oxygen into the body is important. Remember to not rush through the walk or trek if you feel you might pass out. If you have any of these symptoms of altitude sickness like shortness of breath, do not ignore them as this can lead to more critical conditions. Take the time to assess what your body is trying to tell you and take breaks to allow your body to adjust properly before proceeding further.

5. Get travel insurance

We’ve heard some horrific stories of travelers who planned to travel for weeks around South America and unfortunately had serve symptoms of altitude sickness that resulted into hospitalization. Not only was their health at risk, but their trip was completely ruined. Although many people won’t experience this, it can happen to anyone. We recommend getting a reliable travel insurance cover to give you ease of mind while traveling.

Having travel insurance will give you reassurance that you’ll be taken care of in case of altitude sickness that leads to hospitalization. It also means you won’t have to pay too much for the best care that the country has to offer, which reduces the financial strain on you and your family.

This is particularly important if you are for example, in a remote area or in an area that does not have a nearby hospital like Machu Picchu. In case of an emergency, you may be helicoptered out to the closest hospital, which can cost up to thousands of dollars without proper travel insurance.

We hope our personal experience of altitude sickness and our tips to prevent and minimize the symptoms assists you on your travels. Have you ever experienced altitude sickness? Share your experience with us and let us know in the comment box below your tips and suggestions to combat altitude sickness.

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