It was a dream come true: I was in Bhutan, hiking up a steep incline to one of the world’s most coveted destinations. Taktsang, also known as Tiger’s Nest Monastery, clings precariously to the ledge of a cliff face 10,240 feet above sea level, and 3,000 feet above the Paro Valley. I began to feel tired, dizzy, and nauseous, which are sure signs of altitude sickness. Shortly thereafter, my guide was holding my hair as I vomited on the side of the path. Not exactly the scene I imagined when I pictured my trip to Taktsang!
I cut short my ascent to the halfway point—a tea house sits directly opposite the monastery—so that I could at least get some photos. Later, back at my hotel, I was still feeling unwell and the staff called in a doctor. He gave me an injection, and I slept it off. The next day I was weak, but feeling much better. This was my first brush with altitude sickness, and I wasn’t expecting it.
Altitude sickness, which is also known as Acute Mountain Sickness, is more common than you might think. While most people can ascend to 8,000 feet with no problems, AMS affectsabout 20% of people who ascend more than 8,000 feet and 40% of those who ascend more than 10,000 feet. In the Himalayas, it’s the leading cause of death among climbers.
Read on to discover how to prevent altitude sickness, how to recognize it, and a few tried and tested altitude sickness remedies.
Preventing Altitude Sickness
Altitude sickness can strike anyone. There is no way of predicting who will experience it, including age and fitness level. The only factor that might indicate if you will be affected by altitude sickness is if you’ve had it before.
That would be me. About two years after getting sick in the Bhutan Himalayas, I flew to Leh, Ladakh in Northern India. The town of Leh sits at an altitude of 11,500 feet. This time I took extra precautions. And while I managed to avoid getting sick, I was extremely short of breath the entire week I was there.
By contrast, when I drove from the train station in Pathankot to Dharamsala, which has an average elevation of 4,500 to 6,500 feet, I felt no symptoms whatsoever. So it’s impossible to predict whether you will be hit by altitude sickness ahead of time.
But it’s still wise to be aware of this condition and take a few measures to prevent it. The main risk factors for altitude sickness are ascending too fast and over-exertion.
Altitude Sickness Remedies
The best way to prevent altitude sickness is to ascend slowly. Ideally, climbing no more than 1,500 feet per day will help you acclimatize gradually. You can also descend to sleep. A descent of just 1,000 to 3,000 feet is enough to make you feel better. “Climb high, sleep low,” is the climber’s mantra.
Avoid strenuous activity, especially the first day you reach a new altitude. Two days at each altitude is recommended, giving you time to rest. On my first day in Leh, I spent the entire day in bed reading, even ordering room service to avoid the exertion of walking to the restaurant.
Drink a lot of water—far more than you normally do, or would expect to do even when exercising. At least two to three liters of water per day is recommended. You should also eat lightly (no heavy, greasy, or fried foods), make sure you’re getting enough salt, and avoid alcohol (which dehydrates you).
Consider taking the drug Diamox. It only works as a preventative measure, so you’ll need to start taking it before you begin to ascend. There are side effects, and it does not prevent altitude sickness. But it can lessen the symptoms and help you acclimatize faster.
Recognizing the Signs of Altitude Sickness
When altitude sickness strikes, it is important to be aware and take the symptoms seriously. Many fatalities could likely be prevented if sufferers understood the seriousness of their symptoms in advance.
Altitude sickness is the mildest of conditions known as Altitude Diseases. Symptoms can start as low as 6,500 feet in elevation. The most common symptoms include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Lack of appetite
- Restless sleep
- Upset stomach
- Feeling unsteady
- Shortness of breath
High-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) is a much more serious condition that can develop in people with altitude sickness, and it can be fatal. Likewise with high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), the main cause of fatalities from high altitude. It’s essentially water in the lungs, and is usually caused by ascending too quickly to more than 8,000 feet. People with HACE and HAPE must descend immediately and seek medical treatment.
The symptoms of HACE and HAPE include:
- Excessive emotion
- Irrational behavior
- Low-grade fever
- Hacking cough with phlegm
- Breathlessness, even when resting
- Double vision
More Altitude Sickness Remedies
As previously mentioned, the best way to treat altitude sickness is to descend to a lower altitude ASAP. In the event of developing HACE or HAPE, it is absolutely imperative that you descend and immediately seek medical treatment.
Keeping yourself hydrated and resting are also important. Avoid exercise, alcohol, and smoking. Eat regular meals and drink two to three liters of water per day.
By following these tips and knowing the symptoms, most people can avoid (or at least mitigate against) AMS. And while there are some helpful altitude sickness remedies, I can assure you from personal experience that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!
Mariellen Ward is a travel writer and digital storyteller. She has a BA in Journalism and has been published in many leading publications around the world. Her award-winning website, Breathedreamgo, is one of the top travel blogs about India. Mariellen is an advocate of female solo travel and responsible travel. Though Canadian by birth, she considers India to be her "soul culture" and has spent many years immersing herself in the culture.