Being in high altitude feels like being choked to death slowly. I’d walk two blocks or a flight of stairs and it starts to feel like I ran a marathon. You might say I suffer from altitude sickness.
Outside of Denver is a small city called Leadville. It’s the highest incorporated city and the second highest incorporated municipality in the United States at an elevation of over 10,152 feet (3,094 m). You can imagine my surprise then when I start to notice bicyclist around the area competing in a race. I can barely walk a block and these people are competing. How do they do it? What’s the secret?
Causes of altitude sickness:
The cause of altitude sickness is because of the lower oxygen levels and reduced air pressure at high altitude. The thing is, everyone reacts differently to higher altitude. It doesn’t even matter how fit you are. On our climb up Cotopaxi volcano (5,000 meters / 16,400 feet) in Ecuador, I was struggling horribly while some of the others in the group were climbing like it wasn’t a big deal at all.
You are at higher risk for altitude sickness if:
- You’ve climbed too fast in a short period of time. Perhaps jumping from sea level to 10,000 feet.
- You live at a much lower altitude.
- You are above 8,000 feet / 2,400 metres.
- You are dehydrated.
Stephanie usually starts throwing up a day or two into a high altitude location. I’ve never been sick from being at a higher altitude but I do start to feel dizzy and run out of breath often. Headaches usually occur for me if I push myself too much. Stephanie gets migraines. Neither of us sleeps very well at higher altitude the first few days.
Treatment and prevention:
The most obvious treatment is going lower in altitude but that’s not always an easy solution. Here’s a few alternatives for treatment.
- Oxygen cans are recommended. I’ve tried them before but they didn’t help me much. Perhaps it might work better for others.
- Go higher in altitude at a slower pace and adjust yourself to the air as you go higher.
- Climb high, sleep low. If you enjoy a good nights rest, sleep at a lower altitude.
- If you’re in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, or Colombia chewing on coca leaves may help.
- Drink lots of water and avoid alcohol. Dehydration is a common issue among those with altitude sickness.
- Eat more carbohydrates. It’s a great excuse eat more bread, pizza, pasta, cereals, etc.
If you have severe breathing problems, start coughing up blood, or other forms of sickness — it’s time go to the nearest hospital as soon as possible.
I’m not a doctor. A lot of what I mentioned has been personal experiences and what I’ve learned while traveling and from the internet. I suggest going to see a doctor if you feel that you might have health issues at higher altitude.
Have you had altitude sickness? How did you treat it? And where were you?