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Advice on how to handle altitude sickness

Hello, my husband and I are planning a trip to Bwindi, Uganda 11/21 to see the gorillas.  We are in our mid-60s in good health.  While in Santa Fe NM (elevation 7,199 ft.) I experienced the lowest level of altitude sickness - headache and difficulty breathing. My research shows Bwindi to be between 3,904 - 8,553 ft., with our planned lodge to be at 6,562 ft.. I understand we cannot "choose" our gorilla family, and that trekking is anywhere from 30 minutes to six hours for a one hour gorilla experience.  I am concerned about me being able to do this comfortably.  It is a great deal of money for a short time, with many unknowns.  Has anyone our age/ability level done this?  Any altitude sickness?  Any tips on how to minimize altitude sickness?  

Thank you very much for your assistance.

7 Replies

For most people,  a few days acclimatization and ibuprofen work well.  Generally altitude sickness only become a problem 8,000 feet and up and if it starts to become more than mildly uncomfortable is most easily address by immediately descending.   However you may need medical assistance if it becomes serious.

It is possible that what you experienced in New Mexico at ~7000ft was dehydration due to dry air which will also induce mild headaches.  Shortness of breath is normal at altitude until you acclimatize and you just have to take it easy at first.  It can be surprising but it is not necessarily indicative of a problem.  It can take a few days to acclimatize.

If you are in good health, age is not a factor so much as you individual sensitivity.  If you believe yourself to be sensitive there is a prescription drug know as Diamox and you may want to discuss that with your physician.

Here is an article that may be helpful...

https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/altitude-sickness#1

Thank you OldGuyot.  I read the article, and am revitalized with knowledge.  Great advice!

@lisahopi I'm currently feeling pretty envious of your upcoming adventure, as I had plans to visit Rwanda in the few weeks after the shutdown began. In my preparation, I had been thinking through how to handle elevation, as I don't tend to do well above ~7000ft. In addition to planning to pay close to attention to my hydration and also trying to give myself a few days at each elevation to acclimatize, I did also discuss with my doctor the option of adding altitude medication to the line-up. Unfortunately, I don't have any news to report as we had to cancel our trip, but as @OldGuyot mentions, you might discuss with your physician the option of taking altitude medication with you on the trip, just in case you really need it.

If you think of it, please post a few pictures from your trip - I can perhaps live a bit vicariously through them! Hope you have a great adventure!

At REI, we believe time outside is fundamental to a life well lived.

Hello JenK,

You'll get to where you want to go I am certain.  

We fly into Kampala, which is 3,937.  We plan to have two days there.  We will change our lodge to sleep at a lower elevation.  I will be sure to hydrate.  

We are also visiting Madagascar.  I am so excited!  I will post photos.

Thank you for your advice and assistance.

Has anyone our age/ability level done this?

Everyone is different. I'm older than you are. I routinely hike at altitudes of 10,000 feet without any symptoms. On the other hand some years ago, after two weeks in Colorado climbing 14teeners almost every day, the only time I experienced symptoms was the last day. So obviously this depends on the individual and even how they feel on a particular day.

In addition to what others have already said, keep in mind that modern airliners with pressurized cabins cruise at what is effectively 7,000 to 8,000 feet. So you'll be exposed to comparable altitude for several hours on your flight(s) to Africa. 

Whether you experience altitude sickness symptoms on your trek may also depend on the amount of physical exertion you do to get to the gorillas. The risk will be higher if you have to hike some distance and especially if the trail climbs upwards.

I would discuss your concerns with your family doctor. They will be able to take your medical history into consideration. They may also prescribe medications, assuming they think any are necessary.

...Wanderer


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@lisahopi 

This sounds like such an amazing trip! We'd love to hear more about your experience when you get back. You've gotten really good advice here regarding altitude, particularly about consulting with your doctor prior to your trip, but I wanted to emphasize the piece about hydration mentioned by @OldGuyot

I've climbed multiple peaks at elevations up to 14,411 feet (Mt. Rainier) and have found my experience with altitude sickness has varied greatly. I've run the gamut from no perceptible effects at altitude to headaches and shortness of breath. To the point brought up about your experience in Santa Fe, one of the most difficult times I've ever had at altitude was not climbing a mountain, but rather a trip to Squaw Valley resort in Tahoe (elevation ~7000 ft). That climate was significantly drier than I was used to and I believe the altitude affected me more so because I was dehydrated.

In addition to following the recommendation of your doctor, I encourage you to make sure you are drinking plenty of fluids and staying hydrated.

Hopefully this helps, thanks!

At REI, we believe time outside is fundamental to a life well lived.

Thank you very much everyone for the sage advice!  I will also practice at Mt. Pinos a couple of times.  Will also check with my Primary and get an Rx of Diamox for good measure.