Updated 02 July 2014

People in high places

Altitude isn’t just an issue for mountain climbers.


When I first experienced some of the classic symptoms of altitude sickness – nausea and dizziness – there wasn't a mountain in sight. I was in a desert (the Atacama in Northern Chile, which rises to over 4000m in parts).

Plenty of travel destinations are above 2400 metres, the height at which many people will start to experience symptoms of this malady: ski lodges, mountainside hotels and even cities (Mexico City, Aspen, La Paz, Cuzco and Lhasa, for example).

Some unlucky travellers may feel woozy already above 2000m. So if you’re heading anywhere high, it’s well worth factoring altitude into your plans.

Here’s how best to acclimatise and avoid unpleasant symptoms:
  • Avoid travelling straight from low altitude to high: break the journey at an intermediary level.
  • Give yourself a couple of days to rest when you arrive at your destination. Symptoms of altitude sickness take some hours to manifest, so take it easy, even if you’re feeling fine on arrival.
  • Ask your doctor about a prescription for acetazolamide (Diamox): this medication can both help prevent and relieve symptoms. It's important to remember, though, that even if you're taking Diamox, you still need to allow yourself time to acclimatise.
  • Take in plenty of fluids, but rather avoid alcohol.
  • If you're pregnant or have a pre-existing medical condition, like diabetes or a heart or respiratory problem, check in with your doctor about whether travelling to a high altitude destination is a reasonable risk in your case.
  • Symptoms should clear up in a few days. If they don’t, or if they get worse, it’s important to descend to a lower altitude immediately.
Altitude sickness is generally only life-threatening in mountaineering contexts, but milder forms of the condition are still unpleasant – similar to having the flu or a bad hangover – and you don’t want to be laid low when you should be feeling on top of the world, literally.


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