If you are planning a trip to Cusco, Peru chances are you’ve heard of the high altitude and risk altitude sickness. If you come from low altitude areas closer to sea level, you may experience what is called altitude sickness, mountain sickness, or sorroche by Peruvians. Changes in elevation affect different people in different ways, and there is no way to tell whether or not you will experience altitude sickness during your trip to Cusco. Know and understand the signs, symptoms and treatments before you touch down at 3,400 meters (11,150 feet).
Going to Machu Picchu
One of the most common mistakes in dealing with high altitude is overexerting the body and not giving it time to adjust. Even if you are an expert hiker, the altitude will most likely affect your stamina and energy on a trek. Save your trip to Machu Picchu or Rainbow mountain for the end of your trip, when you are better adjusted. Book with an experienced guide and agency like Southern Peru Explorers who can help you have a safe and enjoyable experience.
What is altitude sickness?
Altitude sickness is basically just the feeling you have when your body is trying to work to adjust itself at higher altitudes. There is a pressure drop and less oxygen in the air at elevations over 8,000 feet. This means that the body has to recalibar itself to make sure the organs that need oxygen the most (the heart, lungs, and brain) are getting enough.
What are the symptoms?
The best comparison for the symptoms of altitude sickness is a really bad hangover. You may feel very drained and fatigued, nauseous, groggy, etc. Most people experience a shortness of breath at the very least. The normal cases of altitude sickness are what is called Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). The symptoms are usually very minor, show up in about 12-24 hours after you land, and are improved within a day or two. These are:
- Muscle aches
- Shortness of breath
- Decreased appetite
In some very rare cases, the body has extreme difficulty adjusting. A buildup in the lungs or brain can occur which can usually be treated when detected. These cases are called high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or high altitude cerebral edema (HACE). In incredibly rare and extreme cases this fluid buildup can result in death. Know the following symptoms and immediately see a doctor if you experience:
- Chest pain or tightness
- Severe difficulty breathing, even a rest
- Inability to walk
- A cough that produces a pink, frothy substance
In these cases it is incredibly important to descend to a lower altitude. There are many lovely day or overnight trips you can take to the Sacred Valley, which will give your body some more time to adjust. In moderate cases your symptoms will be resolved after you descend to a lower altitude and/or are hooked up to oxygen. Many luxury hotels in Cusco come equipped with oxygen controlled rooms or oxygen tanks, and of course you can always find this in a hospital.
How to treat mild symptoms
The best way to tackle altitude sickness early on is to take it easy. You may be tempted to walk around and explore your new surroundings, but it is a much better idea to just rest up. Coca tea is a local trick to aid the symptoms of altitude sickness. You will most likely not be very hungry at first, so just eat a small snack or meal, sip a cup of coca tea, and then hit the bed. You will have plenty of time to walk around later in your trip. It is better to give your body time to adjust early on instead of over-exerting it and then having to sit out fun trips around the city later on.
Make sure to drink lots of water before and during your first few days. When you do leave the bed, give yourself time to stand, take stairs a bit slower, and don’t walk up too many big hills at first. If you would like to have a drink to celebrate your arrival, note that the altitude may impact you. There is no scientific data that confirms this as fact, but many people report feeling the effects of alcohol much faster at higher altitudes. And of course nothing is worse than a hangover WITH symptoms of altitude sickness.
Talk to your Doctor
Please seek medical advice from your licensed physician about what you can do to prevent altitude sickness. There are a few prescription medicines available, your doctor may prescribe an Acetazolamide. This pill is taken usually a few days before and after you reach high altitudes. It helps to prevent and reduce the symptoms you may feel due to altitude sickness. It can usually be taken a week or two after you’ve reached a higher altitude to help reduce your symptoms.