What is altitude sickness and why is the coca leaf said to help relieve its symptoms?

In mountain topSuddenly you feel dizzy. It can start with a mild headache that can lead to lack of appetite, nausea, shortness of breath, and even a racing heartbeat. What could happen to you? He may look tired but eventually you are diagnosed with altitude sickness. This is what happened to ‘Sálvame’ presenter Jorge Javier Vázquez on his recent trip to Peru: ‘I started to feel really bad and the second night I had trouble walking’ , he explained on the show, after reporting on his “crisis” via social networks.

Jorge Javier Vázquez eventually admitted: “I was destabilized and with altitude sicknessNot only that, but pulmonary edema has developed in his body, which is the situation that occurs when there is excess fluid in the lungs. Although most people with altitude sickness improve descend to a lower altitudethe truth is that in a serious situation, the patient can develop major problems that can even lead to death. But what exactly is altitude sickness? This is the name given to a series of symptoms that develop when a person is at high altitude: the main cause of altitude sickness is hypoxia, lack of oxygen in the human body.

Of the hypoxia There has been a lot of talk recently, since the use of masks has become “normal” due to the pandemic: some have claimed that using these face masks can cause hypoxia, although the truth is that their use does not cause this. effect. Hypoxia can occur, for example, as as a result of severe lung disease, but not for wearing a mask too long.

How high can altitude sickness develop?

Although it is a common disease among climbers, hikers or skiers, no one is immune to developing symptoms. According to data from the Hospital Clínic de Barcelona, ​​​​up to 25% of travelers who sleep at altitudes above 2,500 meters may be affected, as well as up to 70% of those who ascend above 4 500 meters. Among them, it is estimated that 1% may have serious illness, in the form of pulmonary or cerebral edema. The risk of altitude sickness increases with altitude, regardless of gender or physical condition, although people with heart or lung problems may be more susceptible.

The altitude at which they are estimated to be likely to start symptoms appear is 2,500 metersmore or less the height at which the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, Peru, is located above sea level. However, some symptoms may begin to be noticed without the need to climb the mountain, in points located at high altitude, as is the case in Mexico City, located at about 2,240 meters above sea level.

What happens to the body in this situation? Lack of oxygen – at higher altitudes, lower atmospheric pressure, and less oxygen and nitrogen pressure – prevents the alveoli from transporting the necessary amount of oxygen to the bloodstream.

Common symptoms of altitude sickness

  • Headache
  • dizziness
  • nausea or vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Insomnia or inability to sleep
  • Fatigue and weakness

In the more serious cases some level of mental confusion, poor coordination and even impaired consciousness may occur. Likewise, breathing difficulties can be perceived and, in the worst case, blood can even be spit up. If these symptoms appear, the first thing to do is reduce altitude and seek medical attention; It will be at the health center where the tests necessary for diagnosis will be carried out. In this case, they will likely do a blood test, brain scan, chest x-ray, or electrocardiogram. Although there are no specific diagnostic tests for altitude sickness, other tests are done to confirm possible effects related to this condition.

The coca leaf as a remedy

Sale of coca leaf in Peru

It is customary that in some places it is always recommended carry coca leaves when traveling in very high areas. It is quite common in points of Colombia, Argentina, Peru or Mexico. From the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism of Peru, they argue, based on data from the Transnational Institute, that the coca leaf “contains countless mineral nutrients, essential oils and pharmacological components” and that chewing it “serves as a mild stimulant to combat certain daily ailments such as hunger, thirst, fatigue, muscle aches — of certain parts of the body — or the fight against mountain sickness”. However, as with other products such as those considered homeopathic, there is no scientific evidence who support this theory.

While its consumption is recommended in the tourism sector, chew a coca leaf it is not a practice approved by the scientific community. According to a study published by the Peruvian researcher in medicine, psychiatry and neuropsychology Joel Salinas-Piélago, of the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia, not only “the evidence [científicas] do not support this measure” but, in addition, “it could increase the symptoms of the clinical picture that we are trying to control”. This is why she suggests “the advisability of not encouraging its use”.

The altitude sickness treatmenta, also called soroche or acute mountain sickness, usually begins with a reduction in altitude, although in many cases supplemental oxygen is usually given. There are also a number of pharmacological drugs (acetazolamide or dexamethasone) that can help improve breathing.

In case of excess fluid in the lungs —as was the case recently with Jorge Javier Vázquez—it may become necessary use a hyperbaric chamber which simulates conditions at a lower altitude without the need to move. Most cases are mild, with temporary symptoms that improve as you descend in altitude and receive medical treatment.

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