Will You Get Altitude Sickness when you Travel Abroad?

I thought I was mightier than the Himalayas. I was very, very wrong.

Quick+Dirty!

My mind flashes back to the Los Angeles health clinic. I’m sitting on a metallic, art deco bar stool at a funky counter that feels more like “happy hour” than “vaccination hour.”

This place is actually really cool, the idea being that you can roll up, get what you need, pay out of pocket, and peace out. A la carte healthcare, they call it.

After discussing the various vaccinations I’d be needing to journey through Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, there’s one final issue to deal with – altitude sickness.

In researching the various ailments I’d be exposed to – typhoid, rabies, Hep A and B, and so on – I was determined to get the bare bones. Vaccinations aren’t cheap, and the thought of blowing hundreds, even thousands of my book advance on a big shot of “just in case” juice made me break out in hives. (Don’t worry – there’s a vaccination for that, too.)

Stupid mountains, making it all hard to breathe and stuff.

Stupid mountains, making it all hard to breathe and stuff.

I committed to only getting what was absolutely necessary to keep me alive. Typhoid seemed to be a big one, and so was malaria. I took the Typhoid shot and paid for a prescription of antimalarial meds. Hepatitis A made the list, Hep B didn’t (I just promised myself I’d cut down on my intravenous drug use and the $2 hooker habit.)

But what about altitude sickness? After all, the mountains in Nepal aren’t simply some of the highest peaks in the world, they are the highest peaks in the world. It’s the home of Mount friggin Everest, after all!

But I wasn’t planning on trekking, and according to Ye Olde Interwebs, both Kathmandu and Pokhara were only about a mile above sea level. It was like visiting Denver, but with air pollution and no hot water.

I’d been to Denver once, for a single evening, on one of my many road trips back and forth between the Midwest and Los Angeles. So clearly I was an expert on both Denver and its elevation level.

You're higher than you've ever been - even if you've been to Denver!

You’re higher than you’ve ever been – even if you’ve been to Denver!

“What about altitude sickness?” asked the nurse, who’d just been forced to explain why he was legally allowed to administer vaccination shots even though he wasn’t an RN. Apparently the woman in line before me was a doctor, and a snarky one at that.

I felt sorry for the guy, but I was also keenly aware that his job was to stuff me with as much medicine as possible in order to make as much money as possible.

“Do I really need something for altitude sickness?” I asked, playing innocent.

He regarded me, trying to decide if I was the swayable type. I’d already turned down the rabies shot, after all.

“Hmm….let’s see.”

He went online and looked up the altitude in Kathmandu. Yep, about a mile above sea level.

“I think that’s the same as Denver. Not too bad, right?”

The nurse wasn’t pushy, and he agreed with me. “Not too bad.”

So that was that. No altitude sickness meds for me.

Flash forward to Kathmandu, Nepal, 2 weeks later.

I’ve been in town for about 48 hours, without a symptom in sight. I’ve just had a simultaneously life-changing and somewhat-disappointing morning at The Monkey Temple, and am walking back to my guest house in Thamel.

It’s getting hard to breathe. The 200+ steps up to the temple summit really wore me out, but then again I’m not in the best of shape. For every zumba class I’d attended in LA this fall, there were at least 3 beers to counteract any health benefits I may have absorbed while shaking my thang to Shakira.

Wow, I must be really out of shape. This is pathetic. Maybe I should stop for a second and catch my breath…

I pause on the main road that wraps around The Dream Garden, a not-so-secret oasis that has somehow managed to shield itself from the city in its attempt to scale the high garden walls and envelop the grounds in a thick cloud of pollution.

Garden of Dreams, Kathmandu

The Dream Garden in Kathmandu

There don’t seem to be any rules or regulations regarding vehicle emissions here, and I’m the unwilling victim of thick spirals of black smoke that putter behind motorbikes like dusty fishtails.

When I keep walking, my breath catches in my throat, shallow and unsure. When I stop to pause, I’m choked with the thick air, which I’m starting to realize is a cocktail of vehicle exhaust, smog, and dust particles that have been stirred up by the rush of constant traffic.

No wonder everyone’s wearing a mask.

I never understood why people wore masks when I was teaching English in Taiwan. Was their some sort of filter on the mask? I mean, didn’t people realize that the same air was still going to get through the mask and enter their lungs?

Me at 1,000 meters above sea level.

Me at 1,000 meters above sea level.

Now I understood only too well – the mask protects you from breathing in physical debris that’s kicked up from the road. You’re still breathing crap air, but at least you’re not choking on granular chunks of sand and dust and feathers and bugs and –

Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz……………….

I stop. Put my head between my legs, right there in the middle of the street. My head rushes with dizziness, and I know that if I don’t bend over I will fall to the ground like a sack of rocks.

That’s when it hits me – the nurse-who’s-not-really-a-nurse was right.

This is altitude sickness. Full-blown, knock-your-socks-off altitude sickness. I hadn’t experienced it in Denver because i wasn’t there long enough – apparently it takes at least 24 hours to kick in.

I make my way slowly back to my guest house and have the brilliant idea to go on WedMD to check my symptoms. Oh great. Altitude sickness can be deadly.

I thought my fatigue and lack of appetite were just from being jet-lagged, but apparently I was wrong.

According to Doctor Web, it just takes the body time to “catch up” after being suddenly introduced to a higher altitude. Wow, if Kathmandu impacts me this much, what would happen if I decided to go trekking up in the real mountains?

At night, as I’m lying in bed, the altitude sickness crescendo washes over me like an electric love-dream: I’m overcome and paralyzed by an all-encompassing, powerful body buzz.

It begins in my feet and tingles up my legs until every inch of me is rolled into a pulsating current; I’m a hot dog in an electric bun.

The body buzz lasts about 5 seconds, and during that time, I’m fully conscious and unafraid. In fact, I realize it is another symptom of the altitude sickness and am not alarmed one bit.

That will come to be a theme during my time in Nepal – complete and utter fearlessness of terrifying things, and complete and utter terror of things that should feel safe.

The symptoms pass a few days later, and it’s a good thing to – I have a 7+ hour bus ride to the dreamy town of Pokhara on my agenda, and I don’t want to miss an instant of it.

This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. If you travel to a high altitude country like Nepal, you may very well experience some symptoms of altitude sickness.

2. Symptoms of altitude sickness usually take a few days to appear - you might feel fine at first and then WHAM!

3. Symptoms include headache, lack of appetite, nausea, and dizziness. For some reason I'd also experienced this weird, electric body buzz whenever I'd lay down to sleep.

4. You should feel better in a few days as your body adjusts to the thinner air at that elevation level.

5. There's medication that can supposedly help with this, but I've never tried it.

6. I'm SO not a doctor and this is SO not medical advice. Please don't sue me.

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