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What Is Altitude Sickness and Natural Ways to Prevent & Treat It

If you live in a place where the elevation is around sea level or barely higher, altitude sickness is a serious concern while traveling. Each winter, people make their way to high-altitude ski resorts in the U.S. and around the world for fun powder days and to show off their ski and snowboard skills. During all seasons, hikers and mountaineers attempt epic ascents that climb high up into the mountains.

To help you prepare for your next big adventure, we’re addressing the topic of altitude sickness. There are natural ways to prevent and treat this condition so you won’t have to slow down or modify your route.

Photo credit: Douglas Scortegagna via Flickr

Understanding Altitude Sickness

Mountainous environments affect the human body in some really interesting ways, and altitude sickness is the body’s natural response to changes in elevation. As you go higher up in the mountains, you will often experience colder temperatures, less humidity, more UV radiation from the sun, reduced oxygen, and decreased air pressure. The effects of altitude sickness don’t usually set in until about 8,000 feet, but everyone’s body is different.  The immediate cause is the reduced oxygen level in your blood due to lower air pressure and lower levels of oxygen in the air as you ascend to higher altitude.

Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

It can be hard to predict who will suffer from altitude sickness and who will be just fine in higher elevations. Oftentimes, the first symptoms to set in are headaches and dizziness. It’s also common to have little or no appetite, feel nauseous, vomit, and feel fatigued when you have altitude sickness. These are not just normal sensations associated with hiking too long or skiing down a really tall slope. Altitude sickness symptoms typically start about six to 12 hours after you arrive in a high elevation setting.

Photo credit: valcker via Flickr

Preventing Altitude Sickness

By far, the best way to prevent altitude sickness is to get used to higher elevations gradually before your big trip. If you can work it into your travel schedule, plan to spend a few days at a moderate level of elevation before climbing higher.

It’s also very important to stay well hydrated in high elevations because water helps the body adjust to its new conditions. You should also pack snacks and meals that are high in potassium, because this nutrient is known to help prevent altitude sickness. Hiker-friendly potassium-rich foods include broccoli, dried fruit, chocolate, bananas, tomatoes, and celery. Complex carbs, such as whole grains and pasta, can also help stabilize your blood sugar and help you keep your energy up.

Ginkgo biloba is a natural preventative measure for altitude sickness, and scientific studies have found quality ginkgo biloba to be beneficial when people start taking it four or five days before reaching high altitudes.

Treatment for Altitude Sickness

If you end up being one of the unfortunate ones that develops altitude sickness despite your best prevention attempts, there are some natural treatment solutions as well. One suggestion is to chew on coca leaves, which is a popular remedy for altitude sickness in Central and South America. You can also make a tea with coca leaves. Ginger, garlic, cloves, and lavender oil are other herbal remedies for this condition that you may want to try if you start feeling symptomatic.

Sometimes, a 5-10 minute treatment breathing pure oxygen from a tank at a local clinic may be enough to cause the symptoms to disappear entirely.

Altitude sickness can be very debilitating if not treated promptly and even lead to a life-threatening high-altitude cerebral or pulmonary edema. Therefore, it may be necessary to get to the base of the mountain and find the nearest medical clinic if symptoms persist. In most cases, altitude sickness will go away after a couple days when you’re back down at lower elevations. But even after treating your altitude sickness, be aware that you may have headaches or mild insomnia for a few more days.

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