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Don’t lose your breath over a high-elevation vacation

You don’t have to go on a Mt. Everest expedition to encounter the discomfort and potential danger of altitude sickness on a trip. In fact, just driving up to the high points in some of the national parks out West is enough to make some people feel faint. And certainly, if you’re visiting high-elevation cities like Cusco, Peru (11,152 feet), or Lhasa, Tibet (12,002 feet), you’ll feel a difference in the air as soon as you step off the plane. Those planning mountain treks at such heights are especially vulnerable. However, for most trips to high places, there’s no need to pack oxygen tanks (unless you are climbing Everest) or spend weeks gradually acclimatizing.

The effects of altitude sickness kick in as you gain elevation and the amount of oxygen in the air decreases. Since our bodies are all different, some people will feel the effects earlier than others. But generally, most people will begin to notice a change at 6,000 to 8,000 feet. If you’re planning a trip, especially an active one, to a place around that elevation or higher, here are some tips to help you avoid problems.

Before you go:

  • Educate yourself about the symptoms and effects of altitude sickness. For starters, read the altitude illness portion of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Health Information for International Travel guide.
  • Talk to your doctor about getting a prescription for a drug like Diamox, a prophylactic you take in advance of going to a high elevation. I took Diamox before climbing the Inca Trail near Cusco, Peru, and was completely free from problems, while most others in my group who did not take the drug were suffering from fatigue, headache, and shortness of breath the first day of the trek.
  • Before you arrive, try to stay hydrated. Avoid caffeine and alcohol.

While you’re there:

  • Plan to take things slowly when you first arrive and get a good night’s rest before being more active. If you’re planning to trek or do some other adventure activity, it’s a good idea to spend a full 24 hours or more taking it easy before you start.
  • If you’re gaining altitude, say on a hike, move at a gradual rate so your body can slowly adjust to the change.
  • If you or someone you’re traveling with experiences a gradual worsening or a sudden onset of symptoms, you should try to get to a lower elevation as soon as possible.

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