Guides on the Inca Trail trek love to tell stories of strong young marathon runners who had to be carried off the trail on a porter’s back –because they were overcome by altitude sickness! Gradual acclimatization to altitude is important if you are traveling to high altitude areas. Some people are laid low by Acute Mountain Sickness, while others are fine – susceptibility is individualized. This can be mild and transient, or so serious as to require emergency treatment and evacuation to lower altitude. Age and physical condition are NOT predictors of AMS, although paradoxically, the elderly often fare better than younger travelers. Sometimes, even people who have been fine on previous high altitude travels become very sick on another trip. You could be lucky and not have any trouble with altitude, or you could get really, really sick. AMS can ruin your trip (or even your life) if you don’t take precautions. More information here: http://www.high-altitude-medicine.com/AMS-medical.html#normal
• Signs and symptoms of altitude sickness can include fatigue and weakness, headache, GI upset including loss of appetite, dizziness, lightheadedness, breathlessness or difficulty breathing, and insomnia or frequent waking during sleep. Acute mountain sickness can progress to high altitude pulmonary edema or high altitude cerebral edema, both of which constitute life-threatening medical emergencies. Get help if you become extremely ill at altitude!
• If at all possible, plan your itinerary so that you have a gradual increase in altitude, instead of starting out at high altitude. At 8,000 ft. (2438m.) altitude, some travelers will have some mild signs of altitude sickness. After a few days at this altitude, you can move up to 10,000 ft. or so. You might notice some increased signs of altitude sickness, but these will be milder than if you had started at the higher altitude. Continue to gradually go up in altitude every couple of days. Remember that when mountain climbers do an ascent, the do it in time-consuming stages to lessen the impact of altitude.
• Plan your trip so that you will be able to take it easy during altitude acclimatization, if necessary. You may need to rest much more than usual. During this time, avoid alcohol and smoking. Eat lightly – your meals should be more carbohydrate-based, which is easier to digest than protein.
• Consider taking preventative medication, such as acetazolamide (Diamox). This is a prescription medication that not everyone can take due to other health conditions, so your doctor should approve its use. Diamox helps speed up your body’s adjustment to altitude, and it also used when serious AMS symptoms develop. There are other medications that show promise to help altitude acclimatization, but they aren’t proven yet.