Altitude Sickness in Tibet

Altitude sickness is a disorder caused by being at high altitude, where oxygen levels are low, without gradually getting used to the increase in altitude. It is also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), altitude illness, hypobaropathy, Acosta disease, puna, and soroche, which occurs at altitudes higher than 2,500 meters. Altitude sickness is considered as the biggest health risk for travelling to Tibet. Most people will experience differing degrees of symptoms upon their arrival in Tibet according to the ascent rate and individual physical condition. In the course of adaptation, symptoms usually decrease gradually. 

Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

Typical symptoms include headache, nausea, vomiting and dizziness. Different degrees of altitude sickness have different symptoms. The normal symptoms usually come on within 12 to 24 hours of reaching a higher elevation. But it will disapper within a day or two as your body adjusts to the change in altitude. The normal symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue and loss of energy
  • Shortness of breath
  • Problems with sleep
  • Less appetite

If you suffer a moderate altitude sickness, you might have:

  • More shortness of breath and fatigue
  • Loss of coordination and trouble walking
  • A severe headache that doesn’t get better with medication
  • A tightening in your chest

If you suffer a severe altitude sickness, you might have:

  • Confusion
  • Shortness of breath even at rest
  • Inability to walk
  • A cough that produces a white or pink frothy substance
  • Coma

Who is at risk for altitude sickness?

Anyone can develop altitude sickness, no matter how fit, young or healthy they are. In fact, physical activity at high altitudes makes you more likely to get it. The faster you climb to a high altitude, the more likely you are to experience altitude sickness. Age, sex and general health status appear to have no effect on the risk of altitude sickness. People who live at low altitudes are not used to high altitudes, and people who have experienced altitude sickness before seem to have a higher risk. Besides, people with lung or heart disease may be told to avoid high altitudes. 

How to prevent altitude sickness?

Make Adequate Preparations

Before visiting Tibet, you need to get healthy. If you ahve heart disease, high blood pressure or other organ problems or anemia should consult a doctor before deciding to travel to Tibet. Be sure not to catch a cold before you go to Tibet, or you will get altitude sickness due to physical weakness. In general, those who choose to travel to Tibet by train are less likely to suffer from altitude sickness than those who travel by plane to Tibet. 

Get Acclimatized

The best way you can lower your chance of getting altitude sickness is through acclimatization, which let your body slowly get used to the changes as you travel to higher elevations. Do not over exert and only partake in light activity immediate after your arrival. Have a good rest during the first one or two days. Don’t use tobacco, alcohol, or other medications, such as sleeping pills. It’s best not to take a shower for the first two days in Lhasa, because you may catch a cold. Drink plenty of water and eat carbohydrate food to stay hydrated. Remenber the importance of gradual ascent. As long as your travel 1,000m higher, spend a night in this place to make better acclimatize to altitude change.

Medical Treatment

Some medicine can be taken before symptoms appear as a preventive measure. In order to be prepared, you can take the pills days before traveling to Tibet. These kind of medicines include Rhodiola rosea L, also called Hong Jing Tian in Chinese.

Oxygen Uptake

When traveling in Tibet, you can buy or rent oxygen tank in many hotels or stores. It can help you feel better.

How to treat altitude sickness?

Once you have the symptoms of altitude sickness, please tell your tour guide immediately, and don’t go higher. Mild AMS symptoms can be treated with proper medication but if it cannot relieve the symptoms, descend to a lower elevation and go to hospital. Giving pure oxygen can help a person with severe breathing problems caused by altitude sickness. Please remember do not overuse it in the relatively low altitude if you only get gentle altitude sickness.