Tips: How to prevent and respond to altitude sickness in Tibet

Updated: Mar 19, 2019 Print
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Millions of people travel to Tibet every year to experience the unique culture, and visit some of the highest and most remote areas of the world. Whether you are there to see the monasteries and unique culture or to trek around the high mountains and lakes, one thing you need to bear in mind is the hugely increased altitude on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau.

For many travelers, altitude sickness is the most concerning part of touring Tibet. It is very important to know about altitude sickness and be prepared for it prior to your visit.

Qomolangma (Mount Everest), Tibet [Photo/VCG]

What is altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness, the mildest form being acute mountain sickness (AMS), is the negative health effect from being in high altitude, caused by rapid exposure to low amounts of oxygen at high elevation.

Common symptoms of altitude sickness

With a higher chance of altitude sickness due to the extreme elevations outside Lhasa, capital of Tibet, travelers should know how to recognize the symptoms of altitude sickness before they have the chance to experience it. If you deal with it correctly, it’s unlikely to be a major problem at all, otherwise it can be disastrous. Failing to diagnose it can make it worse, even resulting in death in some extreme cases.

The onset of altitude sickness includes headaches, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, disturbed sleep, general feelings of malaise, and poor or loss of appetite.

Who gets altitude sickness?

Anyone who goes to high altitude areas can suffer from altitude sickness, no matter how healthy you are and how young you are. Sometimes even Olympic athletes suffer from it. In fact, being physically active at a high elevation would make you more likely to get altitude sickness, especially during the first few days after your arrival in high altitude areas.

Your chance of getting altitude sickness depends on a few other things: how quickly you move to a higher elevation, how high you go up within a single day, as well as the altitude where you sleep. People who have certain illnesses like diabetes or lung disease are more likely to suffer from altitude sickness.

How to avoid altitude sickness in Tibet?

Before visiting Tibet

A. Keep healthy, both physically and psychologically. However, stop exercising at least 10 days before travelling to Tibet. Many people think that a lot of exercise before touring Tibet will help them avoid high altitude sickness. This is not exactly true because exercise will consume a great amount of oxygen and impose an additional burden on the heart, which increases the chances of causing altitude sickness.

B. If you go to Tibet for trekking, make sure to carry out a physical exercise plan (such as swimming, long distance walking, tennis, etc.) one month before you fly to the high altitude.

C. Avoid catching a cold before you go to Tibet, otherwise you will easily suffer from altitude sickness under a weakened physical condition. If you already have a cold, leave for Tibet after you completely recover so as to avoid pulmonary edema and encephaledema caused by colds.

D. Normally, tourists who choose to travel to Tibet by the Qinghai-Tibet train or overland routes are less likely to develop altitude sickness compared to tourists that fly into Tibet. The gradual ascent does make visitors acclimatize better.

Tourists who choose to travel to Tibet by overland routes are less likely to develop altitude sickness than those flying into Tibet. [Photo/VCG]

E. Start taking capsules or compound oral liquid of Rhodiola 10 days before going to Tibet to reduce the impact of altitude sickness.

F. Take warm clothes with you. It begins to snow in many places in Tibet from October and it will be a little cold, especially at night.

G. Take medicines for colds, headaches, stomach troubles or other minor ailments. Vitamins are also recommended. Seek suggestions from your doctor.

H. To prevent sunburns and for general comfort, sunglasses, hats, sun block, sunscreen, and lip creams should be prepared for outdoor activities.

After your arrival in Tibet

A. Don't be too excited upon your arrival in Tibet, and do not run, jump or do physically-demanding activities during the first two days. Nothing is more important than having a good rest.

B. Do not drink any alcohol in the first two days after your arrival in Tibet so as to decrease the risk of dehydration. You need to prepare enough water or snacks with high caloric content, like chocolate, as well as light, high-carbohydrate meals for more energy.

C. It is better not to take a shower in the first two days you are in Tibet, because you are likely to catch a cold.

D. Do not eat food bought from street venders. Otherwise, gastrointestinal disorders might occur and spoil your trip.

How to treat altitude sickness?

Follow your tour guide's advice. Once you have the above-mentioned symptoms of altitude sickness, please report to your tour guide immediately, and don’t go higher if you’re suffering from symptoms of altitude sickness.

A. Medication and oxygen also help to prevent altitude sickness. Mild altitude sickness symptoms can be treated with proper medication. It is extremely important to know that all the medication may have side effects. Therefore, do consult with your doctor or pharmacist before buying or taking them.

B. If medication and oxygen do not relieve the symptoms, and you still feel chilly or very uncomfortable, you need to tell your guide about this, go to a hospital or evacuate immediately to a safe altitude.

Tips: Oxygen can help you relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness, but please do not overuse it in Tibet while your symptoms of altitude sickness are not serious. The oxygen treatment does not work at a higher altitude if they are taken too much at a lower altitude.

A tourist inhales oxygen outdoors in Tibet. [Photo/VCG]

People with serious heart diseases should not visit Tibet.
Those with less serious heart problems need to consult a doctor before starting their trip.
People with high or low blood pressure need to consult a doctor before traveling.

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