Last year, I visited Sri Lanka with my partner, and we ascended the ancient rock fortress, Sigiriya. We enjoy a challenge, so driving towards this huge mountainous rock was only getting more exciting, not to mention the competitive tension between my partner and I to determine who would reach the top first! I secretly had the advantage because I go to the gym a few times weekly, and he doesn’t.
Our climb started well. I was ahead and practically sprinting up these narrow and crooked stairs. Reaching checkpoint one of three, I started to feel a little light-headed. Slowly my vision began to blur, and I found myself struggling to breath. I fell to the floor and shivered as I questioned what was happening to me.
An army of men carried me to the nearest first aid point to splash my pale face with water and get me back to a steady state. As I opened my eyes with confusion, the young gentleman who helped carry me says “Ma’am, you have altitude sickness. Your body is not used to being at this high altitude and it has caused you to feel like this way”.
Through curiosity to understand what had happened and why my symptoms occurred, I carried out some research.
Altitude sickness: The science and the symptoms
Altitude refers to the height of a point in relation to ground level. So, the higher you are from the ground, the more likely you are to start experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness. When reaching higher altitudes, the pressure of the air drops, meaning there is less oxygen for you to breath. Change in altitude can shock your system, and it’s difficult for your body to adjust to it so quickly. You generally start to feel the symptoms of altitude sickness when you go above 8,000 feet.
So what do you feel? In my case, I was very dizzy, suffered lack of breath and felt extremely sick; but symptoms can vary depending on the individual. Common symptoms are headaches, nausea, loss of energy, shortness of breath, dizziness, muscle aches.
Altitude sickness can affect you regardless of your age, fitness levels or health, as your probably gathered from my experience. That’s my ‘going to the gym will be an advantage’ theory out the window! It is more about the ability of your body to handle higher elevations with a quick change in pressure.
If you sense symptoms of altitude sickness on your journey, stop and take a break. Unless your symptoms disappear, avoid climbing any further, as this could make you feel worse. Ensure you take a few essential medicines on your trip, paracetamol/Ibuprofen, anti-sickness tablets, asthma pump if necessary, plenty of water, and maybe even some snacks to keep you energised throughout your climb.
In an instance where your altitude sickness is more serious and requires medical attention, it is always a good idea to make sure you are covered by having insurance. This will protect you when hospital bills are incurred or changes to flights are required due to your extended hospital stay. Take a look at SportsCover Direct’s Sports Travel Insurance to see the benefits of taking out cover for your trip abroad.
And for those wondering if I reached the top to experience the spectacular views, unfortunately I was feeling too sick to go further. But I can take pride in the fact my partner went all the way up and took some magnificent photos for me; although I still claim no one won the race to the top. It wasn’t a fair competition, right?