How To Cope With High Altitude

Saturday, 28 April 2018

When travelling through South America, one thing that you’ll learn early on is that much of the Western side of the continent has a high altitude. Naturally, this is because of the Andes, the second highest mountain range in the world after the Himalayas, which ranges from Chile and Argentina all the way to Ecuador and Columbia in the north. 

For us, we spent over a month travelling in and around high altitude cities and towns across Bolivia and Peru and in doing so have come across lots of different ways to reduce the effects of sickness and general lack of breath.

In this guide we’ll run through all of the options there are for dealing with being at high altitude along with their benefits and drawbacks.

Agua Florida
We’ve started with this one as it’s the only option we hadn’t heard of until we went away and at times it has proved to be the most successful. Agua Florida is an alcohol and herbal based liquid which you rub on your hands befitting cupping them and then taking a big sniff of the air inside. You then rub the remaining liquid on your glands around your neck.
✔️It really does work to combat headaches. Often with being at high altitude it’s common to get headaches, especially if you are hiking.  
✔️It doesn’t take long to feel the effects. If you’ve got a horrible headache then using this will help to ease the pain in minutes not hours.
✔️It’s really cheap and easy to get. Agua Florida can be bought over the counter in a big or small bottle (you’ll only need a small) for just a few dollars. All chemists seemed to know what it was if you mimed sniffing and said for the altitude.
✔️It’s safe. When we climbed rainbow mountain this is what all of the doctors were using on people who were suffering from the altitude. We were skeptical at first but having talked to a pharmacist we were informed that it was completely safe to use.
❌ Its not very pleasant. Sniffing it in gives you a little bit of a shock the first time as it’s so strong and you may find that you just don’t like it. It does get a lot easier after that first time though! 
❌ Simone mentioned that it’s possible to get addicted to the liquid. Whilst we have no evidence to say this is true we though we should mention it here anyway. Just don’t be over reliant on it and only use it when you have strong symptoms of altitude sickness, by just a lack of breath.

Coca Leaves
Coca leaves are quite simply the leaves from a coca plant. To take them roll a few leaves into a ball in your hand, then place the ball in the side of your mouth at the back. Don’t chew the leaves, just leave them there and suck on the juices which come out of them.

✔️ Coca leaves are very easy to get hold of in Bolivia and Peru, two countries which are full of high altitude areas. 
✔️ They are fairly effective and are what the locals use to help them work longer hours in the day. It has a similar effect to caffeine.
✔️They are very safe. Coca leaves are NOT cocaine. Coca is one of many ingredients which goes into the making of cocaine but alone does not produce the same effects. You aren’t taking drugs any more than you are by having a cup of coffee or some chocolate.
❌ They are quite unpleasant. They don’t taste nice and it’s uncomfortable having them in your mouth. Many people who try them end up spitting them out before the effects really work.
❌ Coca leaf plantations are used by drug cartels to make cocaine with and so you may have some ethical issues with taking it. For this reason in some countries such as Ecuador it’s production is banned to help reduce cocaine production in the country.

Coca Sweets
These can be found in most supermarkets and some mini corner shops. They imitate the effects of coca but are simply sweets that you can suck and chew on.

✔️ They are a great alternative to coca leaves as they are a lot more enjoyable. They taste alright and don’t feel horrible in your mouth like the leaves do.
✔️ They are cheap and easy to find.
❌ The effects aren’t quite as strong as coca leaves and so you may not feel much of a difference.

Altitude Sickness Pills
These didn’t seem to be sold in UK farmacies, only Diamox was sold (which we’ll mention later.) There are two different pills sold together, the first is Diclofenaco and the other is normal parecetemol. You take one of each every mealtime. They are normally branded as either Dolodran or Sorojchi Pills.

✔️ Easy to get hold of (any pharmacy will sell them) and effective at reducing headaches and  naesia from being at high altitude.
❌ As with taking any pills there are always possible side effect which tend to effect 1 in 10 people. This is also true of these pills and so they may not be for everybody.
❌ They would get a little expensive and annoying to take if you were at high alitiude for a few weeks as you are meant to take one of each pill 3 times a day.

Diamox is a drug that can be used to treat a whole range of things from heart failure to epilepsy to, of course, altitude sickness. It can be bought in the UK easily from any high street chemist. 

✔️Proven to be a effective at reducing headaches, dizziness and nausea making it particularly good when hiking at highalittifue if you don’t have the option to take it slowly and ascend a little at a time.
❌ One side effect is that it can make you wee lots! I have also taken Diamox before and honestly felt no difference. This is just my opinion however and it will certainly affect different people in different ways.
❌ You have to start taking the pills a couple of days before hand so need to plan when you’ll be at high altitude.
❌ They are one of the most expensive options out there.

Gingko Biloba
This is a herbal based pill which is normally used for improving circulation but has been found to have additional benefits in terms of reducing AMS (acute mountain sickness) symptoms.

✔️ I’ve used this when hiking over 5000m and I didn’t seem to struggle as much as normal. That said, I also took coca sweets and so I can’t say that it was the gingko biloba that had the positive effect.
❌ Definitely more expensive than travel sickness pills bought in South America but probably slightly cheaper than Diamox.
❌ Not easily found. You’ll probably have to go to a specialist chemist or herbal shop to find them or buy it online. In the UK it can be bought at Holland & Barrats. 

Sugary Food
One simple thing to try is just making sure you’re eating a lot of sugary food and high energy food whilst trekking. This seems obvious but it’s easy to forget to not have snacks on you when you set out on a hike. I found feeding myself with sweets seemed to take the edge off a bit! 

We hope this post is informative and helps to answer some of the questions we had before travelling to high altitude places. If you have any questions, please comment or contact us!

Thanks for reading,

Will & Melissa

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