Altitude sickness

Altitude sickness also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), altitude illness, hypobaropathy, is the inability of the organism to adapt in high altitudes, called “hypoxia” (lack of oxygen). It can take effect as low as 2,000 meters above sea level (6,500 feet) and its severity is proportional to the speed of ascent and the altitude reached.

Altitude sickness is able to affect anyone and is more frequent in those under 50.

Behavior in high altitudes
When do symptoms appear?
Serious cases


Symptoms of altitude sickness

In the majority of cases, symptoms are mild or moderate, with one or more of the following:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Physical exhaustion
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fast pulse
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Sudden nocturnal dyspnea (waking up suddenly with the sensation of choking)
  • Digestive problems
  • Lack of appetite

All these symptoms are typical of altitude sickness and should not be a cause of concern.


Behavior in high altitudes

Above all, the most important thing is to remain calm. The psychological factor is substantial for the quick disappearance, or conversely the worsening of symptoms. Many travelers become scared when experiencing the first symptoms or become anxious in anticipation after having read or heard about unpleasant experiences of other tourists. Everyone has different reactions to altitude sickness and no one is able to anticipate what you will feel in high altitudes.


When do symptoms appear?

Few people are affected at altitudes lower than 3,000 m (10,000 ft) above sea level.
Symptoms can quickly appear in less than an hour, the minute you arrive, or it can take several hours. In some cases, it can take 2 or 3 days to feel the first effects.



The best option is to gradually increase one’s altitude in order to adapt in at least a day (2,500 / 3,000 meters above sea level (8,000 to 10,000 feet).

In any event, it is very important to:

  • Keep completely hydrated (at least 2 liters of water per day)
  • Reduce physical exertion the first day
  • Eat in moderation and maintain a diet rich in carbohydrates (bread, cereal, pasta, rice, potatoes, beans)
  • The intake of sugar, such as sweets, is definitely recommended
  • Avoid tranquilizers and/or sleeping pills




  • Pain relievers: aspirin, paracetamol, etc. are recommended with moderation.
  • Oxygen: In the event of respiratory problems, it is recommended to ask for oxygen from the hotel where you are staying.
  • Coca leaf: All restaurants and hotels in the Andes offer coca tea, “mate de coca“, with dried leaves or tea bags, to be used as a pain reliever and anesthetic , as well as to regulate the lack of oxygen and blood pressure. You can also experiment with chewing the leaves like the locals.
  • Muña: Muna tea is very good for all digestive problems. Local guides in Titicaca region usually advise tourist to rub muña branches in their hands and then inhale the aroma to alleviate dizziness.
  • Alti Vital®: This composite of natural plants joins coca leaves, muna, as well as guarana and ginger, allowing you to fight against tiredness and relieve headaches thanks to its caffeine content.

Serious cases

In serious cases (approximately one in every 5,000 people), a malignant development of altitude sickness can lead to two potentially dangerous sicknesses: pulmonary edema and cerebral edema. An early diagnosis (in the first several hours) is very important, they are easy to treat in the initial stages if hospitalized.

Pulmonary edema

High altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) is a dangerous accumulation of liquid in the lungs, preventing the aerial cavities from opening and filling with air. The symptoms in which you should see a doctor as soon as possible are:

  • Irritating cough
  • Foamy phlegm
  • Bloody phlegm
  • Rigidity or chest tightness
  • Noise in the lungs
  • Blue skin coloration (cyanosis)
  • Impossible to walk or coordinate your movements
  • Great difficulty breathing in sleep

Cerebral edema

High altitude cerebral edema (HACE) is an excess accumulation of fluid in the brain. The symptoms are:

  • A headache of great intensity in the nape
  • Photophobia (abnormal intolerance to light)
  • Motor problems
  • Hallucinations
  • Confusion