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Altitude Sickness in The Andes of Peru


When visiting a high-altitude city such as Cusco or hiking a trek in a high-altitude location in Cusco, Puno, Arequipa, or Huaraz, it is important to keep in mind that altitude sickness can strike you. When oxygen doesn’t reach the lungs at the usual levels such as at the coast, it is possible to experience some difficulty in breathing, which can lead to some uncomfortable symptoms. It is important to know that not every single person will experience the symptoms related to altitude sickness. Unfortunately, there is no way to know in advance if a traveler will get sick until actually being in a high-altitude location. In addition, studies have shown that being in good physical shape does not reduce the risk of getting altitude sickness.

 

Most of the time, altitude sickness symptoms can be first felt at about 6,000 to 7,000 feet above sea level (1,830 to 2,100 m.a.s.l.). The risk of getting altitude sickness increases once a person starts going higher. This risk is even higher when a person gains more than 1,500 feet or 500 meters of elevation in a few hours and if that person has not gone through an acclimatization process. For instance, when arriving in Cusco by plane and coming from sea level, the visitor will easily notice shortness of breath due to the lack of oxygen.

 

Some of the regular symptoms of a moderate altitude sickness are strong headache, dizziness, nausea, stomach pain, and sometimes nose bleeding. The symptoms of a severe altitude sickness are intense and persistent headache, persistent vomiting, loss of co-ordination, liquid sound in the lungs, rapid breathing, marked blueness of face and lips, persistent cough, high resting heartbeat (over 130 beats per minute), and strong stomach pain. Fortunately this is not common, but when it does occur, medical attention is required immediately.

 

If altitude sickness strikes you in Cusco City or another major city, it is recommended that you stay in the hotel and rest for the remainder of the day, drinking plenty of liquids and avoiding heavy meals. The symptoms usually disappear the next day. If altitude sickness symptoms are felt while hiking and they start affecting your hike, you should go back in search of lower elevations. (Usually this helps and symptoms start going away.) If symptoms persist or worsen, you should visit a doctor immediately.

 

In order to reduce the risks of getting altitude sickness, some recommendations can be followed. Please read them below:

  • You might first visit a city located around 6,000 and 7,500 feet above sea level (1,830 to 2,300 m.a.s.l.) to let your body start adjusting to the altitude. Arequipa, the Colonial City, is a good choice, and you won't regret your visit to this beautiful city. This is usually the best way to go when visiting high-altitude cities over 10,000 feet above sea level (3,000 m.a.s.l.) such as Cusco or Puno.
  • If time does not allow a visit to a mid-low altitude city prior to your visit to a high-altitude city, spend your first day in Cusco very quietly, eating light meals and just taking it easy and relaxing. Also, you should arrive in Cusco or another high-altitude city at least two days prior to starting a high-energy activity such as hiking the Inca Trail.
  • Another recommendation to reduce the risk of getting altitude sickness is to take some over-the-counter medicine or drink coca leaf tea constantly. If you decide to take some over-the-counter medicine, make sure you do it at least 48 hours prior to your arrival and keep taking them consistently until you leave or you are back from your trek. Also, native Peruvians use a natural source to reduce the effects of altitude sickness as well as fatigue. This natural source is the coca leaf, which needs to be chewed constantly upon arrival.

In addition to the methods mentioned above, you should drink plenty of liquids, avoid high-energy activities, avoid heavy or fatty meals, and avoid imbibing alcohol the first day in Cusco.



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