Travel Health Overview – Altitude Sickness
Most of us plan very well for our trips away from home, and for overseas trips in particular. However, there is one condition that almost always takes people by surprise – altitude sickness. This is very much a disease of modern times – in the past, it wasn’t possible for us to ascend a mountain quickly enough that we would not be used to the lowered oxygen levels of high altitudes. Now planes and cars have made this a very real worry – but unfortunately it isn’t possible to tell who will be worst affected by it! We look at the recommended level of travel insurance cover for places prone to causing altitude sickness, and how you can identify and recover from it.
What is Altitude Sickness?
There are several things that act to stress your body when you’re at a high altitude:
- Lowered oxygen levels (at 10,000 feet above sea level, there is 70% as much oxygen in the air as there is at sea level)
- Low humidity, causing dehydration
- Increased UV radiation
The symptoms are like that of a hangover – nausea, headache, fatigue, loss of appetite and sometimes vomiting. In extreme cases, pulmonary edema or cerebral edema (swelling of the blood vessels or brain cavities) can occur and may cause death.
A Traveller’s Perspective – What Does it Feel Like?
Most people say that altitude sickness feels worse than a hangover! You might be unable to get out of bed and feel headachey and flu-ey for a couple of days. You will probably have very little energy, because either you don’t feel like eating, or you are vomiting up your food. People say they feel ‘horrible’ and ‘like I was going to die’ … though the symptoms usually pass without incident if you stay at one level to acclimatize.
The Logistics of Acclimatizing
Acclimatizing to high altitude is not a simple matter of a few hours rest. It can take from 2 to 5 days to acclimatize to the lower oxygen atmosphere above 10,000 feet. It is never wise to push through and just wait until you acclimatize at a higher altitude, because of the risk of developing a pulmonary or cerebral edema.
Holiday insurance is the best way to guard against the unfortunate circumstance of being forced to wait at a particular spot to acclimatize to a low oxygen environment. It can cover both your accommodation and other logistics costs, and also medical bills if you need to check in with a doctor.
Travelling with Altitude Sickness Prescription Medication
If you know that you are prone to altitude sickness, or would rather use preventive medication rather than curative (only under doctor’s orders, though!), there are still issues to be aware of with carrying the medication. Medicines which are legal in some countries may not be approved in others – it is always smart to get a letter of authority to carry your specific medicine, through the embassy or visa office of the country you are visiting.
How Travel Insurance Helps
People often assume that altitude sickness is something that will pass by itself, without you making any changes to your plans because of it. After all, many of us have gone to work with a hangover … what could the difference be? Unfortunately, altitude sickness is often much more severe than a hangover. If you or your children get a severe case, you may be liable for big medical bills, or heavy cancellation fees and new accommodation charges if you have to stay and acclimatize somewhere.
Get both medical travel insurance and logistical travel insurance cover to avoid altitude sickness completely ruining your trip!