How to avoid altitude sickness

by Ale Werner
Guide to travel to Uyuni Salt Flats

Puna, soroche, altitude sickness or mountain sickness is a physical condition that affects those who are at a high altitude compared to sea level; and in general, they have climbed abruptly until this. This discomfort can completely ruin your visit to wherever you are or your climbing experience; so it is absolutely necessary that you know and know how to prevent altitude sickness.

We experienced it in our trips to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile (maximum height reached 4,100 meters), in the Uyuni Salt Flats (height 3,850 meters) and in the Eduardo Abaroa National Reserve in Bolivia (maximum height reached 5,000 meters).

Why do we feel altitude sickness?

The higher the height compared to sea level, the lower the amount of oxygen our body is able to absorb. As the height increases, the amount of oxygen and nitrogen available in the air decreases; which affects both our cognitive and corporal systems, causing altitude sickness. This is a scientific fact, we have nothing to do about it and we can only take precautions to avoid the symptoms of puna disease.

In general, height discomfort is directly related to the height and speed of the body. If one day you are sunbathing on the beach and the next you decide to climb a mountain at 3,500 meters, your body will probably not have been able to adapt to the new conditions and feel the discomfort.

Geysers of tomorrow’s sun in Bolivia

Physical activity and dehydration also play a key role in altitude sickness or mountain sickness. If we start running, our body will need more that will not be available, making us completely prone to feeling bad. The same if we are dehydrated.

What are the symptoms of altitude sickness?

The symptoms of altitude sickness are:

  • headache
  • dizziness
  • physical exhaustion
  • lack of appetite
  • feeling of nervousness
  • tremors
  • vomiting
  • increased heart rate
  • sleep disorders (drowsiness or insomnia, depending on the person).

In general, you will know how to recognize it. It is a complete physical and mental discomfort, you feel that your body is off and you do not feel like moving on. You feel as if you have run a hundred marathons and then you have eaten something that silenced you. Really, puna’s disease makes you feel terrible.

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There are studies that show how age helps not to suffer this evil; that is, young people are more likely to feel bad. It may be due to the maturity of the nervous system, but it is not very proven.

How to avoid altitude sickness?


The most important thing to avoid altitude sickness is to keep your body hydrated. At least 3 liters of water daily at more than 3,000 meters high will help your body to oxygenate better; therefore, the probability of mountain sickness decreases. This is crucial, especially for children.

Coke Leaves

It is said that the coca leaf helps your body to oxygenate better, so it prevents and improves puna disease. You can consume it directly by chewing it or in sweets or tea infusions.

For the paranoid, it is impossible to feel drug effects with the coca leaves. It takes 500 bags of tea to extract one gram of cocaine; of which only 0.1% could be absorbed by your body. It is impossible to feel any narcotic effect.


Have you heard of mountain climbers and climbers who “acclimatize” before continuing to climb? In theory, after past the 3,000 meters, high one should not climb on scales greater than 500 meters per day. Altitude sickness can start at altitudes as low as 2,500 meters, so it is important to take slow and safe ascents seriously. Not for nothing do mountain climbers sleep in intermediate camps; It is not only to rest, but also to acclimate.

Geiseres-del-Tatio-fumarolas.jpg (1440×960)

For example, if you travel from Santiago de Chile (500 meters high) to San Pedro de Atacama (2,400 meters high) give your body some days before going to the Tatio Geysers (4,100 meters high).

Slow and smooth movements

Above all, if you do not have a good physical condition and are not used to doing cardio exercises, do not move fast. Yes, we know that you are excited and want to see everything around you, but move slowly and in a relaxed way. Do not over excite yourself or make your body need more oxygen in any way.

Alcohol and tobacco

These will only serve to worsen your lung capacity and to need more oxygen in passing the hangover. If you know that you are going to climb quickly and at high altitude, then the previous day (or the previous days if possible) do not smoke or drink large amounts of alcohol.

Guide to travel to Uyuni Salt Flats

What should I do if I have altitude sickness?

The proper rest

As soon as you begin to feel symptoms of altitude sickness, such as dizziness or tiredness, lie down and breathe deeply. Rest and stop any activity you have been doing.

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Drink water

Drink water but without disgusting you. If the urge to throw up is too many, then do not do it.


In extreme cases, some tourist centers, climbing guides, and camps have oxygen tanks. Because mountain sickness is caused by lack of oxygen, it is logical that if you begin to receive the correct amounts you begin to feel better.


If the previous alternatives do not work or are not available, you will have to descend. Go down to the point where you did not feel bad and wait a couple of hours until your body acclimates before trying to climb again. This is the only truly infallible method to improve altitude sickness.

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