When peaks leave you peaked: How travelers can avoid and treat al­ti­tude sick­ness.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - CHRISTO­PHER EL­LIOTT El­liott is a con­sumer ad­vo­cate, jour­nal­ist and co-founder of the ad­vo­cacy group Travelers United. Email him at chris@el­liott.org.

The mo­ment Lia Saun­ders stepped off the bus from Huan­chaco, Peru, to Huaraz last fall, it hit her.

“The world was spin­ning and I felt like death,” she says. “It was like the worst hang­over you can imag­ine — a con­stant spin­ning mo­tion.”

Saun­ders, a busi­ness-sys­tems an­a­lyst from San Fran­cisco who was on an ex­tended hon­ey­moon, had taken ev­ery pre­cau­tion against al­ti­tude sick­ness, in­clud­ing a Di­amox pre­scrip­tion, drink­ing plenty of wa­ter and as­cend­ing to al­ti­tude slowly. But the drive from a beach re­sort to a city at an el­e­va­tion of 10,013 feet, though grad­ual, proved to be too much. Saun­ders spent the next three days in bed.

“The only thing that helped me was coca-leaf tea,” she re­mem­bers.

Al­ti­tude sick­ness, or acute moun­tain sick­ness (of­ten called AMS), is a fre­quent com­pan­ion for travelers, even if they’re not head­ing to the An­des. The av­er­age air­craft is pres­sur­ized to be­tween 6,000 and 8,000 feet above sea level, enough to cause a lit­tle queasi­ness. And that’s all it takes to set off a chain re­ac­tion of un­for­tu­nate symp­toms that could ruin your next va­ca­tion. But it doesn’t have to.

“In sim­ple terms, al­ti­tude sick­ness is caused when you make an ini­tial as­cent from low al­ti­tude to high al­ti­tude,” ex­plains Jean­nine Ben­son, a physi­cian with Kaiser Per­ma­nente in Ed­wards, Colo., which serves high-al­ti­tude desti­na­tions in Sum­mit County. At higher el­e­va­tions, the par­tial pres­sure of oxy­gen in the at­mos­phere is sig­nif­i­cantly lower. Less avail­able oxy­gen means you have to work harder to get the same amount of air as you do at sea level.

“It can af­fect any­one who trav­els at al­ti­tude, re­gard­less of age, fitness level, gen­der or eth­nic­ity,” says Eric John­son, a found­ing physi­cian at Ever­est ER, the med­i­cal clinic lo­cated at the leg­endary Nepal moun­tain’s base camp.

Al­though it’s dif­fi­cult to pre­dict whether you will fall ill, cer­tain fac­tors are known to make you more sus­cep­ti­ble. They in­clude stren­u­ous ac­tiv­ity — such as ski­ing — al­co­hol con­sump­tion and rapid as­cen­sion.

Symp­toms in­clude headache, loss of ap­petite, trou­ble sleep­ing and, in se­vere cases, pul­monary or cere­bral edema — swelling or pres­sure in the lungs or brain. It’s med­i­cally treat­able with Di­amox or Di­amox Se­quels (ac­eta­zo­lamide), a med­i­ca­tion also used to treat glau­coma and epilepsy.

The best way to pre­vent AMS, ob­vi­ously, is to avoid high al­ti­tudes. If you can’t, “Al­ti­tude sick­ness can be pre­vented by as­cend­ing grad­u­ally,” says David Freed­man, founder of the Univer­sity of Alabama at Birm­ing­ham Travelers’ Clinic. So take a day to ad­just to the al­ti­tude in Den­ver be­fore head­ing up to Vail.

I suf­fer from chronic al­ti­tude sick­ness. The mere thought of climbing a moun­tain makes my head hurt. Yet, I love to ski. I’ve tried ev­ery­thing to com­bat the ef­fects of AMS, but after many trips to the moun­tains, I’ve con­cluded that the best cure is time. A day or two is usu­ally all it takes to ac­cli­mate to the al­ti­tude.

Travelers have their own reme­dies, not all of which are sci­en­tific.

When Jared Al­ster re­cently de­vel­oped AMS on his way to Ever­est Base Camp, he dis­cov­ered an ef­fec­tive fix for al­ti­tude malaise. “After a cup of ginger tea and a few Ex­cedrins, I felt much bet­ter and suc­cess­fully made the climb,” says Al­ster, who works for a travel re­view site.

Yas­mina Yke­len­stam, a food blog­ger, pre­pares for high al­ti­tudes by chang­ing her diet. “I in­gest a ton of leafy greens and fruits,” she says. They’re high in sal­i­cylic acid, a com­pound with anti-in­flam­ma­tory prop­er­ties, which she says wards off the ef­fects of al­ti­tude sick­ness.

Oh, and Saun­ders isn’t kid­ding about the coca.

“His­tor­i­cally, coca tea or leaves have been used to help mit­i­gate the af­fects of al­ti­tude,” ex­plains Daniel Jaramillo, di­rec­tor of Colom­bia Eco Travel Group, a tour oper­a­tor that spe­cial­izes in high-al­ti­tude desti­na­tions. (Coca tea is only le­gal in Ar­gentina, Bo­livia, Chile, Colom­bia, Ecuador and Peru, so it’s not a vi­able al­ti­tude sick­ness rem­edy for Amer­i­cans un­less they are vis­it­ing those places.)

Al­ti­tude sick­ness, or acute moun­tain sick­ness (of­ten called AMS), is a fre­quent com­pan­ion for travelers, even if they’re not head­ing to the An­des. The av­er­age air­craft is pres­sur­ized to be­tween 6,000 and 8,000 feet above sea level, enough to cause a lit­tle queasi­ness.

The travel in­dus­try has jumped in to help af­flicted travelers in its own way. At the Four Sea­sons Re­sort and Res­i­dences Vail, guests are is­sued at an “Al­ti­tude Ad­just­ment Kit” in­clud­ing an oxy­gen can, Ga­torade, a choco­late bar, a gra­nola bar and lip balm. It’s ac­com­pa­nied by a card with prac­ti­cal ad­vice on over­com­ing AMS. (Sam­ple tip: “Eat more pasta.”)

The Mon­tage Deer Val­ley in Park City, Utah, serves stricken guests a spe­cial high-al­ti­tude tea blended by its spa. The com­bi­na­tion of el­der­flower, milk this­tle, net­tle and as­tra­galus is said to lessen the symp­toms of al­ti­tude sick­ness.

So if you’re headed to the moun­tains this sum­mer, here’s the take­away: Go slow or don’t go. As­cend­ing too quickly puts you at risk of AMS. You can take some­thing to make you feel bet­ter, but wouldn’t you rather avoid the headache in the first place?

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.