What is soroche?

Soroche is a Bolivian term that refers to acute altitude sickness that can occur when a person rapidly moves from sea level or near sea level to a region of high altitude. Physical symptoms may occur because the body receives less oxygen until it adjusts to the change in elevation. Not all people suffer from soroche and the symptoms can be mild or severe. Fewer signs may appear if the elevation increases gradually while walking, climbing mountains, or driving over mountain ranges.

At sea level, the air contains 21 percent oxygen. It thins out at high elevations and it takes time for the human body to adjust to rapid changes in pressure. The amount of time required to adjust can depend on the season, the time of day, how far a person has traveled, and the temperature; Symptoms may worsen in cold weather. The discomfort of soroche usually goes away within a few days as the body acclimatizes to the higher altitude.

Some people compare the signs of soroche to a hangover; experience headaches, nausea, and feelings of weakness or dizziness. They may be out of breath and fatigued, but experience trouble sleeping. The headache tends to be worse in the morning and at night, and may appear as a throbbing sensation in the temples. Some people may feel pressure in the chest area.

Soroche is common in high-altitude cities, including Lhasa, Tibet; Cuzco, Peru; and, La Paz, Bolivia. When a traveler flies to one of these cities, he or she may suffer from altitude sickness. Experts advise against using alcohol or any medication that slows your breathing if you travel to these regions. Some previously unrecognized medical conditions, such as heart disease, kidney disease, or hypertension, may arise when a sudden change in altitude occurs.

Some of the effects can be avoided by visiting a lower altitude location before traveling to a higher elevation. If symptoms appear, it is generally recommended to rest and avoid strenuous physical activity until the body adjusts. Doctors commonly recommend increasing your fluid intake and taking medications to relieve headaches and upset stomachs. Medications are also available to help the body adjust to changes in altitude.

Two serious conditions can develop from altitude sickness that require emergency medical attention. High altitude pulmonary edema is characterized by a rapid pulse and shortness of breath. The patient's lips may turn gray or blue, and the tongue commonly turns white with patterns of red ulcers. This condition is treated with oxygen and bed rest.

High-altitude cerebral edema can cause a person to become disoriented and dizzy to the point that walking becomes difficult. In severe cases of soroche, he or she may slip into a coma or hallucinate. The patient may feel a throbbing sensation in the ear or temple, accompanied by a pressure headache. This side effect of soroche is rare but requires prompt medical attention.

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