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What is Soroche?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated May 17, 2024
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Soroche is a Bolivian term that refers to acute altitude sickness that might occur when a person rapidly goes from sea level or near sea level to a high-altitude region. Physical symptoms can appear because the body receives less oxygen until it adjusts to the change in elevation. Not all people suffer from soroche, and symptoms can be mild or severe. Fewer signs might appear if the elevation is increased gradually when hiking, mountain climbing, or driving over mountain ranges.

At sea level, the air contains 21 percent oxygen. It thins at high elevations, and it takes a human body time 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 temperature; symptoms might be worse in cold weather. Discomfort from soroche usually goes away in a few days as the body acclimates to the higher altitude.

Some people liken the signs of soroche to a hangover; they suffer from headaches, nausea, and feelings of weakness or dizziness. They might become short of breath and fatigued but experience trouble sleeping. The headache tends to become 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 into one of these cities, he or she might suffer from altitude illness. Experts advise against using alcohol or any medication that slows respiration if traveling to these regions. Some medical conditions might surface that were not previously known, such as heart disease, kidney disease, or hypertension, when an abrupt altitude change occurs.

Some of the effects can be avoided by visiting a lower altitude location before traveling to a higher elevation. If symptoms appear, rest and avoiding heavy physical activity is usually advised until the body becomes adjusted. Doctors commonly recommend increasing fluid intake, and taking medications to ease headache pain and upset stomach. Medication is also available to help the body adjust to changes in altitude.

Two serious conditions might develop from high altitude sickness that requires emergency medical care. High altitude pulmonary edema is characterized by a fast pulse and shortness of breath. The patient’s lips might 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 might cause a person to become disoriented and dizzy to the point that walking becomes difficult. In severe cases of soroche, he or she might lapse into a coma or hallucinate. The patient might feel a pulsing sensation in the ear or temple, accompanied by a pressure headache. This side effect of soroche is rare but requires quick medical attention.

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