How to Avoid Altitude Sickness

25th March 2022

Altitude sickness is a condition that is brought on by travelling to heights of over 2,500 metres above sea level too quickly.

Whilst you can experience symptoms of altitude sickness at heights below 2,500 metres, it only becomes diagnosable as altitude sickness when you pass the 2,500-metre mark. If you are going to be travelling to areas of high altitude, you should be aware of the best ways to avoid altitude sickness in order to make sure you do not become ill on your travels. In this article, we will discuss the ways you can avoid altitude sickness, as well as the main symptoms that you can look out for whilst travelling.

What causes altitude sickness?

Previously, we have looked in-depth on what causes altitude sickness, so in an attempt to not repeat ourselves we will keep this brief. Altitude sickness, also known as mountain sickness, is caused by a lack of oxygen in the air. The higher up you go, the lower the air pressure becomes. In areas of low air pressure, there is less oxygen.

If your body does not receive the oxygen that it needs you will begin to experience symptoms of altitude sickness. Whilst this may seem like a forgone conclusion, there are ways that you can prevent yourself from suffering. If you believe that you are showing signs of altitude sickness, there are a few main symptoms to look out for.

Symptoms of altitude sickness

The main symptoms of altitude sickness are very similar to that of a heavy hangover. If you are lucky enough to have never experienced a hangover, these commonly include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue

These symptoms can also be attributed to hangovers, however, there are some others to look out for that come with altitude sickness. These include:

  • Sleeping problems
  • Shortness of breath
  • Loss of appetite

If you are suffering from any of these symptoms and you are travelling in areas of high altitude, or if you have gone climbing at altitude, then you may be experiencing altitude sickness. Symptoms will begin to manifest themselves after around 12 to 24 hours of exposure to high altitudes and will begin to improve after one to two days.

Where can you get altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness does not occur at any height. There are only certain places in the world where you can contract altitude sickness or at least diagnosable altitude sickness. As a rule, altitude sickness is only contractable at heights of 2,500 metres, or 8,000 feet, above sea level. This means that it is physically impossible to have altitude sickness in the UK. The highest point in the UK is the peak of Ben Nevis in Scotland. As this is only 1,345m (4,412 feet) above sea level you will not be at risk of altitude sickness. 

There are a few areas where you will be at risk of altitude sickness, with the majority of these being South American cities or mountain ranges located around the world. For context, the peak of Mount Everest is around 8,849m above sea level, which is around 29,000ft. This means that you would only need to climb around 30% of Mount Everest to become at risk of altitude sickness. If you are a tourist, there are 39 cities around the world that are above 2,500m above sea level. Of these 39, only seven are not located in South America, four of these are located in China, two in Ethiopia, and one in Afghanistan. 

The majority of the 32 South American cities are located in Colombia, however, the cities with the higher average altitudes are more commonly found in Bolivia and Peru. The highest city above sea level in the world is El Alto, Bolivia. This city is 4,150m (13,615 feet) above sea level and has a population of around 1.2million people. Between 2010 and 2020, an average of 1.2million people will visit Bolivia as tourists, and with cities like El Alto and La Paz being at such a height, altitude sickness can be an issue. 

Another common cause of altitude sickness amongst tourists is the rising popularity of mountaineering holidays. This is when people go abroad to climb famous mountains around the world. The most popular mountain climbing destination in the world is Mt Fuji, Japan. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the number of climbers has reduced, but at its peak, over 300,000 people would climb Mt Fuji a year. At its highest point, Mt Fuji is 3,776m (12,388ft) above sea level, making it a hotbed for tourist altitude sickness.

How to avoid altitude sickness

Man walking up a snowy mountain.

Now that you are aware of what altitude sickness is and where you can contract it, what is the best way that you can avoid it? Thankfully there are things that you can do in order to steer clear of the nasty symptoms that can turn your trip from heaven to hell. Below are some tips you can use to make sure you acclimatise correctly. 

  • Use altitude sickness medication

Acetazolamide is one of the most popular medications that you can use to help treat or prevent altitude sickness. Available to purchase online, this medication is ideal if you do not have plenty of time in advance to acclimatise to conditions, or if you have to make a quick descent from heights. Following an online consultation, you will be able to safely purchase Acetazolamide online from UK Meds.

  • Eat a high-calorie, low-fat diet

Prior to visiting areas with high altitudes, you could consider adapting your diet in order to promote healthy blood oxygen levels. For example, foods with high-fat content can sometimes be difficult to digest at altitude, making you more susceptible to altitude sickness. You should aim to eat low-fat foods that have a high-calorie count. The more calories and carbohydrates that you eat, the higher your blood sugar levels, meaning you will be affected by altitude sickness less. Consider adding foods such as quinoa, sweet potato, bananas, oranges, and apples to your diet before going to altitude. 

  • Ensure you remain hydrated

This may seem like a no-brainer, but for many people who are going on mountaineering holidays, it can be easy to solely focus on climbing. This can lead to people forgetting to do something as basic as drinking. You should always aim to keep your hydration levels high when travelling anyway as the majority of countries with high altitudes are very hot. Remaining hydrated is key to ensuring that the electrolytes in your body are at an optimal level. 

  • Acclimatise to different altitudes

If you have a prebooked holiday where you know that you are going to be facing areas of high altitude, there are ways that you can acclimatise your body before travelling. Many athletes who are going to be competing at high altitudes will completely change their training regime prior to travelling. They will start to train using specialised equipment, and in some cases can even stay in hotels that have rooms that can be set to certain altitudes. The most famous of these is located at Loughborough University, where the Elite Athlete hotel contains 20 rooms with a fully customisable climate. Whilst this may not be possible for you, following the other tips on this list will help you to acclimatise better. 

  • If climbing, do not rush

When you are climbing a mountain, it is important that you make sure you take your time, not only to avoid fatigue but to also give your body the chance to acclimatise to the altitude as you go. Whilst naturally you may take ascension a little more steadily, the temptation to descend at a rapid rate can be there. You may think that going down a mountain means your body will adapt back to regular altitude quickly, however, this is not the case. Much the same as going into high altitudes, returning back to low altitudes will need to be taken steadily to give your body a chance to adapt.

Whenever you are visiting areas over 2,500m above sea level, there is a very real threat of altitude sickness. Whilst this issue is not life-threatening, the symptoms can be rough and can leave you feeling very ill for a few days. If you know prior to travelling how to avoid altitude sickness, you are giving yourself every chance to have a trip to remember, for the right reasons and not the wrong.

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