How To Care For Your Children at Altitude
It’s strange how you can sometimes come away with a fond memory after a terrible ordeal.
A few years ago, I took my family on a trip to Machu Picchu. The first leg of the journey starts in Cusco, Peru, a city that sits at 11,000 feet of elevation.
The problem with altitude is that it doesn’t matter how fit or active you are, the altitude can strike you down almost at random, and it can be especially difficult for your children. We learned that the hard way when I had to nurse my youngest daughter through a hard night of nausea and vomiting.
Sick in the hotel
I still remember my daughter’s expression of exhaustion, misery, and sadness. My children are bilingual, and the word for vomit is “vomitar.” However, children often have a cute way of mispronouncing words, and in my daughter’s infant voice it sounded like she was saying “gomitar.”
“No quiero gomitar.”
She had been healthy and active throughout the day, but at night the altitude pounced. After the first time that she threw up, we moved her into a different bed. About forty-five minutes later she threw up again.
She was at that age where it was impossible to get her to throw up into a bucket, and we kept having to harvest clean sheets and try to find a dry spot before trying to get back to sleep.
The worst feeling any parent can ever have is to sit helplessly and watch your child suffer. I held my daughter close and encouraged her to sip at bottles of Gatorade and water. I wanted to make sure she drank enough to dehydration, but not so much that she’d make herself sick.
She looked up at me and we shared a moment of comprehension that goes beyond language. “It’s going to be okay, you’re going to be fine,” I said. I don’t think she believed me.
Eventually, I realized that her misery was just as much mental as it was physical. She didn’t want to throw up, and the more she thought about it, the more anxious she became. I decided she needed a distraction, so I turned on the TV and found some cartoons. They were weird cartoons, like Popeye from the 60s, but it did the trick. Focused on the cartoons, my daughter forgot about her anxiety and finally drifted off to sleep in my arms.
In the morning, she was back to her old self.
Take altitude seriously
If you’re traveling with your children at high altitude, it’s important to be mindful when they complain of feeling strange. If you take the appropriate steps, you should be able to prevent them from falling ill, but it’s very important to take altitude seriously. Altitude sickness can require hospitalization, and you can get it at as low as 5,000 feet of elevation.
Pay attention if your child becomes lethargic, loses his/her appetite, or complains of nausea. If the symptoms don’t pass after a few hours, or the symptoms are very severe, you should go to a lower elevation as quickly as possible, or seek immediate medical care.
How to prevent altitude sickness
It’s hard to convey to children the effects of altitude, and they probably won’t understand why they are winded when they jump off a plane at 11,000 feet and try to go for a run. The statement, “There is not as much Oxygen here as there is back home,” is essentially meaningless to a child.
The first thing you have to do is to keep your kids from running around, which is always easier said than done. My children do everything at 1,000 miles per hour, which is absolutely the worst way to behave at altitude.
When you disembark from the airplane, you have to allow your body at least a day to adapt to your new surroundings. Your kids will figure it out when they become short of breath, but by then they might have already put themselves at risk. Try to plan an activity that doesn’t require much movement. Go to a movie, or even stay in the hotel and play a board game. When you do walk, stop often and maintain a slow pace.
Don’t try to see everything the first day or you might end up spending your vacation in a hospital.
Give all of your children their own water bottle and make sure that you monitor that they drink from it regularly. It’s not a bad idea to stop and say, “Family water break!” every few minutes. Don’t gulp huge volumes of liquid because that, too, might lead to nausea and shortness of breath. Instead, take regular, moderate sized drinks.
Gatorade and other energy drinks are very good when you’re at altitude. They contain electrolytes that help battle altitude sickness. There is a lot of sugar in Gatorade, and that’s also good for you when you are at altitude.
It’s important to keep your children on a healthy diet, but that also means adapting your diet to suit your surroundings. Extra sugar for your first few days at altitude will help your children stay healthy while their bodies adapt without causing any long term issues.
Whenever I go to Cusco, the first thing I do is find a grocery store and buy a bag of hard candies. There is something about getting into that physical state where you feel a sugar buzz that seems to fend off altitude sickness.
The good news about this tactic is that it’s very easy to get your kids to go along with it. Tell them that they have to have a hard candy in their mouth and a bottle of water in their hand all the time. The hard candy gives them a jolt of sugar, and it also makes them thirsty which promotes hydration.
Hard candies can be a choking risk if your kids aren’t used to them. Pick a candy that has a hole in the middle so that even if they do accidentally swallow it, they can still breathe.
Consult your doctor
Before you take your family to a tourist destination at altitude, it’s prudent to schedule an appointment with your pediatrician and make sure the vacation doesn’t constitute too much of a health risk. Your pediatrician can also provide you with prescriptions for medications that can provide relief in an emergency.
It provides peace of mind to know that you have appropriate medicine in your possession in case of need. However, I’ve always found that increasing your sugar intake, slowing your pace, and staying hydrated goes a long way towards ensuring you and your family stay comfortable at altitude.
Your body adapts quickly
It’s actually stunning how quickly your body can adapt to a new situation. If your family vacation involves driving to your destination, you can mitigate the chances of altitude sickness by breaking up the journey into a couple of days. Nothing beats getting a good night’s rest, and it’s miraculous how quickly your body can make the necessary adjustments to match your environment overnight.
The real danger comes when you fly into elevation. It comes as quite a shock to your system to step off an airplane at 11,000 feet. Sometimes your mind can play tricks on you, and you think you’re fine because there’s no outward indication that anything about the world has changed. Listen to your body! Don’t try to jog and catch a taxi or you might end up passing out.
Take the opportunity to learn about your body
Make sure your children understand the risks of high altitude, and make a game out of prudent behavior. Call the hard candies “power pellets,” or set an alarm on your watch to schedule regular drink breaks. Part of travel is learning about different customs and cultures, but it’s also important to take every opportunity you can to understand your own health and body.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the night I stayed up with my daughter and nursed her through her altitude sickness. She was so sweet and vulnerable and I’m glad we successfully navigated that challenge together. However, although that moment constitutes a memory I treasure, I sincerely hope I can spare her from ever having to experience something like that again.