High altitude sickness – Challenges to traveling in Tibet

What is High Altitude Sickness?

Traveling to Tibet can also mean a nasty case of altitude sickness for people who are used to the atmospheric pressure found at lower elevations. This illness, also known as hypoxia, is the result of a lack of oxygen to the tissue in the body. Hypoxia’s symptoms include nausea, vomiting, lethargy, confusion, and breathlessness. It can also be fatal.

There is about the same amount of oxygen (around 21 percent) in the air regardless of elevation, but because of a lack of atmospheric pressure at high altitudes, it’s harder for the human lungs to absorb. Our heart and lungs has to work overtime at high altitudes to get the oxygen we need. This leads to high blood pressure.

Generally, in high altitude places above 3000 m, there is low pressure and the air is thin, the UV intensity is relatively large, the temperature is relatively low. People who adapt to other environments can easily suffer altitude sickness. Altitude sickness is divided into acute altitude sickness and chronic altitude sickness.

Different types of Altitude sickness

Acute altitude sickness is generally the most common. The more critical condition is plateau pulmonary edema and plateau encephalopathy, which are more critical two diseases. If the above two cases occur, may in addition to oxygen, but also need to be treated immediately off-site so that the body can be fully adapted, so as to get effective treatment. Most of the chronic altitude sickness is long-term damage, relatively poor prognosis, but some people are adaptable and can fully adapt to this environment.

Why Tibetan don’t suffer High altitude sickness?

A person struck by altitude sickness may wonder how the people of Tibet can live at such high altitudes without suffering hypoxia themselves. Researchers have studied Tibetans to find out why they can live in settlements averaging 16,000 feet above sea level.

The researchers discovered that Tibetans exhale much less nitric oxide (NO) than a control group living at sea level did. What’s more, the Tibetans’ lungs transferred twice the amount of nitric oxide from their lung walls into their bloodstreams than others. Nitric oxide is believed to aid in the expansion of blood vessels. Blood flows more easily, which allows the heart to work at a normal pace, due to the decrease in blood pressure from vessel expansion.

That means that the Tibetans’ hearts can deliver more of the lower ambient oxygen available in the air to their bodies. With the dilated blood vessels, Tibetans can achieve this with less effort than a person at the same altitude whose cardiopulmonary system is used to near-sea level pressure.

About the author

The Tibetan Travel website's creator, hailing from Lhasa, is a cultural enthusiast. They promote responsible tourism, connecting the world to Tibet's beauty and heritage. Awards recognize their contribution.