Looking back, maybe I was a little unsympathetic. “Really? You are going to take a nap? The ridge view awaits!” It was our first family trip at altitude and we’d finally dropped our packs in Chugchilan, Ecuador on our Quilotoa Loop adventure. I could see the ridge above and I wanted to try to spot Cotopaxi, the snow-capped volcano that is the second highest summit in Ecuador at 19,300 feet. Jay could see where this conversation was headed. He popped three ibuprofen for his pounding headache and followed us out the door.
I spend most of my life trying to feel fabulous without pharmaceuticals and I definitely carefully weigh the costs and benefits of medication for my daughter. There are times, though, that everyone needs a little help from science to swing the world by the tail – especially at altitude. Here are some remedies we’ve found and have used in order of “naturalness.” Don’t forget to read last week’s post on some of the trip planning approaches and other things that might help with altitude sickness too!
Important Safety Notes Before You Read Further
- Consult with your doctor about safety and dosage before giving your child any of these treatments. Better safe than sorry.
- Do not take sleeping pills to help deal with insomnia that comes with altitude sickness. It can slow breathing and make blood oxygenation even more difficult.
- The following symptoms require going to lower altitude immediately and getting medical attention: confusion, appearing drunk, chest rattle when breathing, fever, a wet cough with frothy saliva, severe lethargy, or loss of physical coordination. These rare altitude reactions called pulmonary edema (HAPE) or cerebral edema (HACE) can result in death from respiratory failure or brain swelling if left unaddressed.
On that happy note…
4+ Altitude Sickness Remedies and Preventives
1. Coca Leaves are the Breakfast of Altitude Champions
Leaves from the coca plant are a favorite for Central and South Americans. You can’t get them in the US since regulators make a tenuous link between the raw leaves and highly processed cocaine. If I was someone who was drug tested regularly I wouldn’t risk it, but the most you’ll get from chewing a cheek-full of leaves with some bicarbonate as an activator is a strong coffee buzz. Also, you’ll look ridiculous. You can buy them at most tiendas or share the ritual with your new friends.
You can also make tea out of the leaves. It tastes fine, especially if you stir in a little honey.
2. Ginkgo Biloba Research Has Positive Results
Another option is a ginkgo biloba supplement. It has shown some positive effects in research, but more analysis needs to be done before the link can be proven. I tried it before we hit Peru’s Sacred Valley with mildly positive results. It is a little hard to draw a personal conclusion because I often feel pretty good at altitude anyway. The literature recommends taking 100mg twice a day beginning five days before you go up and continuing while at altitude.
I don’t have any photos of me taking ginkgo biloba – how boring would that be? So here’s another one of our Vicos friends enjoying a bag of their local buzz. The container in the man’s hand on the left is the “activator” they add to their cheekful of coca.
3. Ibuprofen Might Do More Than Just Treat Your Headache
The non-prescription alternative Jay tried in Peru was ibuprofen. The instructions we got were 600mg of ibuprofen every six hours starting two days before altitude and the first three days there. The special activator is having a shot of espresso about 2 hours before getting to altitude. Ibuprofen bothers my stomach so I opted for the ginkgo instead, but Jay thought this helped him. Again, we can’t really draw conclusions, but anecdotally this regimen has been well received. Even if it doesn’t keep you from getting altitude sickness, it will help deal with some of the headache symptoms that may come with it.
4. A Diamox Prescription Might Be Good to Tuck Into Your Bag
Diamox, or Acetazolamide, is an FDA approved medication for preventing and treating altitude sickness. You begin taking it before you get to altitude. It speeds up acclimatization by improving oxygen access into the blood. For many people it reduces the horrible altitude symptom of insomnia as well. If you are connecting with your doctor pre-trip for antibiotics or other things you may want to ask about it. I am not recommending this, but you can also get most medicines without prescription at pharmacies in Peru and many other countries. There are some other medications that I won’t mention here because they start to get into the non-FDA approved and lots-of-side-effects category. Talk to your doctor if you want to know more.
5. Grab Bag of Other Stuff
Oxygen canisters are not always available, but could provide temporary relief if you aren’t feeling great. We had them on our most recent trip to Peru but I don’t think anyone used them. They aren’t something you can throw in your carry on bag so you’d have to look for them when you arrive.
Working with your doctor to test your red blood cells before you go on your trip could be informative. If there is a problem with anemia or low red blood cell count you might want to resolve it (as recommended by your MD) before you go by addressing the underlying issue – possibly low iron or B vitamins.
If you aren’t feeling great from a respiratory health standpoint you’ll want to check with your doctor to see how to handle it. Going to altitude if you have bronchitis or low-level pneumonia can’t be a good idea.
There are lots of non-FDA approved treatments out there on the interwebs. Most of them are probably fine to try and might not help but also might not hurt. Experiments on your n=1 are always interesting. Let us know if you find a cure!
There are lots of interesting options for stuff you can put in your body to prevent or remedy problems at altitude. Think about your options ahead of time and get some professional medical advice and it will set your family up to maximize every minute of your high-altitude trip!