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Dealing with Altitude Sickness

Everest Base CampHighland altitude sickness increase with altitude.

Nearly all tourists entering Tibet experience highland altitude sickness. For some the effect is strong, but for most it is just an inconvenience .

The reaction varies form person to person, and experts can not say who will be affected, but statistically old people are more likely to feel stronger altitude sickness than the young, the unfit/unhealthy are more likely than the fit/healthy, and males are affected more strongly than females.

Effects increase with altitude. China Highlights recommends that customers over 65 do not go to Ali in Tibet’s remote west, which is 4,300 meters above sea level in the city, and surrounded by mountains.  

Experiencing Altitude Sickness

You may not feel uncomfortable even several hours after you arrive at a high-altitude place. However most people who feel altitude sickness feel it the first night, and the discomfort may continue for about three days. You may feel the strongest altitude sickness the second day after your arrival.     

Most of Tibet is high enough to produce some adverse reaction in most people. For the majority of people, the reaction will be a matter of discomfort, breathlessness, poor sleeping patterns or limited capacity for physical exertion . Poor sleep is most common. Most travelers to Tibet complain they can hardly fall asleep, or fall asleep but wake up frequently on the first two nights.

Severe Conditions

In some (1%) more serious reactions can develop. These can be potentially life-threatening conditions that may only be relieved by moving to a lower altitude . Travelers should inform themselves about the symptoms so that they can recognize them. A severe, persistent headache, nausea, and loss of coordination or disorientation, are signs of a serious reaction ( Acute Mountain Sickness, AMS for short). This potentially fatal condition requires that you descend immediately (sometimes 300m lower is enough).

Acclimatizing

Adverse reaction to altitude is usually reduced if one acclimatizes by reaching high altitude over a period of at least a few days (3 days is usually enough).

For this reason, it is often supposed that driving to Lhasa is better than flying. But the altitudes where nights are spent while driving to Lhasa may be far in excess of Lhasa's 3,600m. Roads blocked by landslides or otherwise may require travelers to exert themselves, carrying packs at high altitude, and so increasing the likelihood of an adverse reaction.

Flying to Lhasa, acclimatizing there, and driving out may well be preferable.

On arrival at high altitude, it is possible that no immediate effects of altitude will be felt. Nevertheless, it may be of great importance not to exceed the lowest level of physical exertion on the first day, and only increase exertion very gradually over the following days.

Most of western Tibet is at least 1,000m higher than Lhasa, and is best only approached after several days acclimatizing at a lower altitude.

Tips to Reduce Altitude Sickness

Here are some of the precautions you may take before entering Tibet according to previous experiences.

  • Physical training beforehand can reduce altitude sickness, but not necessarily.
  • Try to keep healthy and not to catch a cold before entering Tibet. If you catch a cold before departure, postpone your travel or change your itinerary, as not being well is more likely to result in A cute Mountain Sickness. If you are ill after entering Tibet, go to see a doctor as soon as possible. There are doctors in major hotels in Lhasa.
  • The first two days arriving in Tibet, we suggest visitors keep warm, not take a bath, smokers smoke as little as possible, and do not drink alcohol.
  • Do not eat too much in your first days in Tibet; 70%-80% full is enough.
  • Drink plenty of water (>4 litres) before going and at altitude , and eat lots of vegetables and carbohydrates.
  • Slow down your movement, even if you feel energetic. Moving slowly is the best way to avoid mountain sickness.
  • Tell your guide promptly if you don't feel well and your follow guide's advice.
  • Stay in a place of relatively low altitude, such as Lhasa, Shannan, or Shigatse, before you move to a higher altitude.
  • Take some high altitude medication. The most effective medicine is Gao Yuan An ( 高原安) and Rhodiola ( 红景天). Taking Gao Yuan An a day before your departure is more effective. Rhodiola’s effectiveness is slow, and it is should be taken 10 days before entering Tibet. So we recommend Gao Yuan An. The medicine is hard to find outside Tibet, but you may ask your travel agency or guide for help.
  • People with serious heart disease should not go to Tibet, and people with light heart troubles follow doctors' advice , as should people with high or low blood pressure .