Breathtaking Loja - Altitude Sickness and 9 Cures

Pulse and oxygen meter
First let me point out that not everyone experiences altitude sickness. In large part, if you do or not is dependent on the DNA you inherited from your parents. But don't get discouraged if you arrive in Loja and feel a bit "off." There are at least nine different things one can do to feel better and overcome the effects of higher elevation.

How much difference can a few hundred meters of altitude make in one's ability to breathe anyway? You might be surprised. One would assume that a person who grew up in Loja would be well adapted to the altitude, which is about 2050 meters (6725 feet above sea level) on the valley floor. Yet even a lifelong resident can find climbing stairs a challenge at the Villonaco Wind Farm overlooking Loja which is just 650 meters higher (2100 feet higher) above the city.

I say this so you won't despair if you arrive to Loja having lived at lower elevations most of your life and find yourself experiencing some degree of breathlessness or other symptoms associated with decreased oxygen in your body. The majority of people can, and will, adapt though not always everyone. Let's explore what can make the difference and what can help you to adjust.

Some background: To understand what is going on, imagine a box full of air. Let's pretend (for easy numbers) that it is at sea level and the number of oxygen molecules inside is 100. This is the baseline for measurement. Now that same box in Loja would only have 84 molecules of O2. At nearly 7000 feet above sea level the air here is thinner, or less dense - the molecules are more spread out - so each inhalation of breath pulls in fewer oxygen molecules. It may sound like a dramatic difference but I can assure you that the 200,000 people living in Loja find enough oxygen to live!

The effects of obtaining less oxygen with each breath at the elevation of Loja might include: feeling short of breath, some degree of insomnia, dizziness when standing up after sitting for awhile, fatigue, and headache. Higher elevations (think Quito) might experience the same but more severely, and perhaps other symptoms like chest tightness, nausea, loss of coordination, etc. The point is that if you are not used to living at this height above sea level then you should expect some amount of discomfort while acclimating, although I would point out again that not everyone is affected by altitude sickness.

So how to compensate? The good news is that most people will adapt naturally within a few weeks of taking up residency. You can speed this up in several ways.

1.  Be aware that most people are "shallow breathers." We tend to use only about 15% of our lung capacity so become conscious of your breathing and use your diaphragm more - take deeper breaths. Doing this for even 5 or 10 minutes every hour can dramatically raise your blood oxygen levels.

2.  Drink more water. One aspect of the thinner air is that moisture loss through your exhalations is greater and as you become more dehydrated then your blood thickens and blood pressure rises. That makes it more difficult to move oxygen around to the cells inside your body. Stay hydrated and it will help. Have you noticed how Lojanos eat a lot of soup and drink a lot of juices and teas? Getting enough liquids really helps.

3.  If you can, increase your exercise levels before coming to Loja. Doing so can help expand your lungs, and also improve muscle tone so everything works more efficiently. Many people moving to Loja from North America experience weight loss during their first few months here. Increased exercise (more walking, for example) and a change in diet (more fresh fruits and vegetables) often result in shedding some pounds - losing weight will also help address breathlessness.

4.  Monitor your health with a pulse/oxygen meter. These can be had for relatively low cost ($10-30) and can give you some piece of mind knowing and understanding what is happening to your body. They clip onto a fingertip and very quickly provide numbers for your pulse rate and blood oxygen saturation level. Ideally your O2 will register 92 or above. These meters can show you just how quickly taking a few deep breaths can increase your levels.

5.  Take your time coming here. If you think you might have trouble adapting then one approach is to first visit another area at a lower altitude for a few days before arriving in Loja. For example, when flying to Loja the airport you will land at is located in Catamayo. Elevation there is 1500m (5000'). Consider taking some time to explore this small town of 17,000 people before moving on to the city.

6.  Similar to the previous tip - if you are already here and not feeling well then drop down in altitude for a few days. Vilcabamba might offer a good respite. Then when you return to Loja you will probably feel better quickly.

Example of a portable O2 concentrator
7.  If you anticipate problems before coming (maybe you are/were a smoker, for example) then you might want to invest in a portable oxygen concentrator. Think of these as being like a small CPAP machine that can be worn while walking around. These devices deliver a steady flow of air under mild pressure and thereby allow one to inhale additional O2 with each breath. They are available for purchase in Ecuador in larger cities like Guayaquil or Quito but can be quite expensive so purchasing one to bring with you is perhaps a better option.

8.  A common folklore medicine approach in the Andes is to chew on coca leaves or make a tea from them. I mention this because no doubt you will hear about it from other sources. However, since it is considered a traditional folk remedy and I have not personally tried it then I cannot recommend it as a good or bad solution - I just don't have enough evidence one way or the other.

9.  If you don't feel well, get help. There are doctors and medications that can offer relief. A commonly prescribed drug is Diamox (generic name Acetazolamide) but this should NOT be used if one is allergic to sulfa.

I know this is a lot of information but I wanted to be thorough. Loja is a great place to settle down and live the good life. If you experience discomfort upon arrival then there are steps you can take to help you adapt. Most everyone does adapt and once you have then when you hear the word "breathtaking" applied to your new home you will think of the beautiful Sierra mountain scenery.


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