Altitude sickness: what is it and how can you avoid it?

You probably heard about it and you may wonder how to avoid the altitude sickness or what the best possible way is to prepare for the altitude sickness. Read this blog carefully in order to make sure you have all the information needed before starting your vacation. There are two types of altitude sickness, namely HACE; High Altitude Cerebral Edema and HAPE; High Altitude Pulmonary Edema. Both sicknesses are very ‘popular’ while being in a high altitude.

Firs of all it is important to acclimatise to the altitude, this means the process by which your body accustomed to lower levels of oxygen and is only achieved by spending time at various levels of altitude before progressing higher. There is a difference between altitude, for example high altitude is the zone between 2.500m and 3.500m. Very high altitude is between 3.500m and 5.500m and extreme altitude is above 5.500m.

Most likely you can ascend from sea level to 2.400m without having sickness symptoms. However, if you are going higher, the height changes in oxygen and pressure levels start having an impact on your physiology.

Altitude sickness

The most dangerous part of doing a trekking is the speed at which you arrive at high altitude. Most likely is that you arrive in Cusco first, before you go to the Machu Picchu. Cusco has an altitude of 3.400m, which is on the boundary of the high and very high zone.

As one ascends oxygen impregnation stays relatively constant but air density drops, which means the % of oxygen per breath reduces. You can see this as the following: oxygen molecules moving further and further away from each other at higher altitudes. So in Cusco, the oxygen per breath is 40% less than at sea level.

You will notice the difference from the start you arrive in Cusco. You will surely feel the ‘thinness’ of air while you walking short distance.

However, your body will adjust very quickly and starts to adjust on the low level of oxygen. You will notice that your breathing becomes faster and deeper, even though you are resting. Don’t worry; this is a good sign, because this means that you are embracing! Furthermore, the number of red blood cells, which are responsible for carrying oxygen in your blood, increases. And finally, a certain enzyme is secreted which promotes more effective transfer of oxygen from your haemoglobin to your blood tissue.

Make sure you give your body enough time to acclimate and progressing to higher altitudes.

Acclimatisation line

The term ‘acclimatisation line’ is the point where you get symptoms of altitude sickness. So for example, your altitude line is 3.200m, if you stay below the 3.200m, you don’t get any symptoms, but if you go above the 3.200m, you get symptoms. To secure that you will completely acclimatised and to increase your acclimatisation line, you need to stay one/two nights at 3.200m in order to increase your acclimatisation line to e.g. 3.900m. If you stay below the 3.900m the next day, nothing will happen. However, if you go further than 3.900m, you start experience altitude sickness.

So, what are the symptoms exactly? You can get headache, nausea, tiredness, shortness of breath, dizziness, throwing up, trouble sleeping and faster heart rate. 

Therefor: make sure you take your time to acclimatise and give your body the time that is needed. Because we all want to avoid altitude sickness while being on vacation, right?