In the four years that my wife and I have lived in Cuenca, at an elevation of around 8,500 ft., we’ve known several people that have left because of altitude-related medical issues.
People visiting Cuenca may not immediately notice the effects of increased elevation, except for some mild symptoms of altitude sickness (headaches and breathlessness are common). These symptoms usually diminish after two or three days. Many people assume that there is less oxygen at higher altitude, but the amount of oxygen is actually the same as it is at sea level (about 21 percent of the atmosphere). What is different, however, is the partial pressure of the atmosphere, which helps push oxygen molecules across the membranes of our lungs.
The body’s first response in trying to acclimatize to altitude is to increase both heart and respiratory rate. After a week or so, the body will also start manufacturing more red blood cells, which contain oxygen-carrying hemoglobin. Can’t catch your breath? At an altitude with less atmospheric pressure, the critical exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide across the membranes in the lungs is slowed considerably, and increased respiration is triggered by the build-up of carbon dioxide molecules in the blood.
If you are considering moving to a high-elevation area, it is extremely important that you understand how this might affect your health. People with a history of the following conditions are advised to discuss their plans with their health care providers:
- Heart disease (CAD, heart attack, arrhythmia)
- High blood pressure
- Diabetes, as altitude affects circulation overall and especially in the kidneys
- Respiratory diseases (asthma, emphysema, COPD)
Something to be very cognizant of is that living at altitude can exacerbate existing health challenges and even manifest new health issues. Know your personal risk factors before you commit to living at altitude.
It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the symptoms of altitude sickness and a few strategies to reduce its impact. Some of the more common symptoms include:
Fatigue Malaise Ringing of the ears
Dizziness Nausea Blistering
Breathlessness Vomiting Purpling of hands/feet
Headaches Body Pain Dilated Veins (legs)
Insomnia Loss of appetite Distorted vision
*If any of these persist for more than two to three days, you are advised to seek medical care.
To avoid the above symptoms (or at least reduce them):
- Avoid drinking alcohol and caffeine, as both increase dehydration
- Keep your level of exertion at a conversational rate (don’t go faster than you can talk), and rest when you need to
- Drink more water than usual, two to three times your normal intake
- Decrease your salt consumption, which affects blood pressure and water regulation
- Eat a well-balanced diet (your body is working harder at elevation so you will use more calories)
- UV protection for skin and eyes (hat, sunglasses, etc.)
- Wear appropriate clothing to adjust to warm/hot days and potentially freezing night temperatures
Additional factors that can affect your physiological response to higher elevations when traveling or moving up to altitude include:
- How quickly you ascend to your destination. If possible, spend a day or two at a lower-to-medium elevation, especially if you will be heading over 10,000 ft.
- The elevation of your destination (10,000 ft or higher may require more time to acclimatize or medication).
- Your level of physical activity (when in doubt, slow down or stop).
- What you eat and drink
- Your current health/medical issues: please consult your health care provider before you book your trip
Active travelers (hikers, fishermen, etc.) should be familiar with the symptoms of edema-related problems, such as:
- Pulmonary Edema: Pneumonia-like symptoms (water in lungs), wet cough, pink to red sputum (blood in lungs)
- Pericardial Edema: Increased water in the sac (pericardium) around the heart, affecting heart function
- Cerebral Edema: Water build-up around the brain
The prescription of each of these is the same: get the person to a much lower elevation immediately. If not, death can result within a few days in some cases.
If considering a trip or move to a high altitude destination, do your due diligence and make an honest assessment of your current health issues and anything that might be triggered by living at high altitude. The last thing you want is to get to your destination and find out you just can’t live there.