This complete guide to altitude sickness will break down what the illness is and how the symptoms appear, as well as offer tips on how to avoid the sickness and, if you are affected, how to treat it.
What is altitude sickness?
It occurs when you can’t get sufficient oxygen from the air as it is thinner at higher altitude. This generally occurs at 6,500 ft. (1,980 m) above sea level. As Cusco sits at 11,152 ft. (3,399 m), it is very possible that visitors will feel the effects of the elevated altitude. The symptoms of the sickness usually emerge after spending 6-12 hours at high altitude, so be aware that you may not feel the effects immediately. On the Salkantay Trek, you will hike up to 15,090 ft. (4,600 m) at the Abra Pass and therefore it is important to prepare for the possibility of sickness while in the remote region.
These are the most common symptoms of altitude sickness:
Tips to avoid Altitude Sickness
Before you start a trek through the wild mountains of Peru, there are certain measures you can take to help your body to acclimatize to the new surroundings:
Use Medication for Altitude Sickness- see your doctor at home and ask about Diamox (altitude sickness drugs). You should begin taking the medication 1-2 days before you start to go up in altitude and continue to take it while going up.
Spend at least two days in Cusco before you your trek in order to acclimatize to the change in altitude.
Take it easy- give yourself plenty of time to get from one place to the next and walk slowly. If you feel particularly weak then take a taxi; a ride in the city is very cheap and usually costs between US$1-3.
Enjoy a cup of coca tea- although the effects of coca leaves are still debated, they have been used in traditional medicines since their first cultivation 4,000 years ago. Locals in the mountains will often be seen chewing them, but you can simply add them to boiling water and enjoy a warming cup of tea.
Stay hydrated- drink plenty of water throughout your trip. Also avoid or limit your alcohol intake (particularly the night before the trek), as it will cause dehydration.
Eat well- although Cusco is one of the most excitng cities in the world in terms of cuisine, try to think about what will help you during the trek. For example, salty foods will dehydrate you, whereas foods that are rich in potassium such as bananas, avocados, dried fruit and chocolate are great to eat before taking to the mountains.
Finally, sleep well- your body is able to make more red-blood cells to carry the oxygen that is not extracted from your lungs into your body when you are sleeping. Luckily at our Ecocamps you will sleep through the night in our cozy domes.
Treating altitude sickness
If you are in the middle of a trek and feel any of the above symptoms, stop and rest where you are and limit any exercise. Acetazolamide can be used to reduce the intensity of your symptoms, but may not relieve them completely. No matter how you feel, make sure you keep drinking water and tell your guide how you are feeling. You can continue going up with care once you feel fully recovered.
However, if your symptoms are severe and continue to get worse then you should go down by at least 500m (about 1,600 feet) and see a doctor. If you notice that someone in your group is acting confused or unable to walk straight then take them to a lower altitude as quickly as possible.
If your symptoms are not severe but your headache is making you want to give up, stay positive and remember that your end destination, Machu Picchu, is at a lower altitude than Cusco, meaning more oxygen and no more pain!
Disclaimer: We are not medical experts but have gathered the most common and best reviewed advice on altitude sickness.