Last Updated on November 13, 2023 by Janine
Worried about altitude sickness in Mexico City? These tips will help you prevent or manage the symptoms so you can make the most of your trip.
Many travelers experience altitude sickness in Mexico City. The elevation of Mexico City is 2,240 meters (7,350 feet) above sea level, making it one of the highest of any major city in the world.
As a result, the thin air and reduced oxygen levels can trigger a range of symptoms known as altitude sickness. When you combine that with the city’s already poor air quality, thanks to smog and pollution, it’s no surprise that lots of people feel crappy when they arrive.
I’ve visited Mexico City at least a dozen times and I almost always experience a massive headache or migraine on the first day of my trip. It took me several visits before I realized that it was likely altitude sickness. Now that I’ve finally caught on, I have several strategies I use to overcome symptoms of altitude sickness so I can enjoy my trip!
Below, we’ll delve into the causes, symptoms, and, most importantly, practical strategies to effectively manage altitude sickness during your visit so you can get back to feeling your best and make the most of your time in Mexico City.
Keep reading, and all will be revealed.
What is altitude sickness?
There are actually a few different types of altitude illnesses, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll be referring to acute mountain sickness (AMS). AMS is a medical condition that occurs when someone ascends to higher altitudes too quickly for their body to adjust. It’s most common at altitudes above 2,400 meters (8,000 feet). It is primarily caused by reduced oxygen levels and lower air pressure at higher elevations.
The most common symptoms of altitude illness include headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, and shortness of breath. In severe cases, these symptoms can be associated with more severe altitude-related conditions like high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), which require immediate medical attention.
Altitude sickness can affect anyone, regardless of age or fitness level. It’s wise for travelers to be aware of its risks and take appropriate precautions when venturing to high-altitude destinations like Mexico City.
Like I said before, I always felt “off” when I visited Mexico City, but it wasn’t until my third or fourth visit that I realized it was likely due to the altitude. I’ve lived at sea level almost all my life (except when I lived in Xalapa, Veracruz, which is a moderate-altitude city). I usually experience a headache and fatigue when I get to Mexico City, but, as you know, those symptoms can be indicative of all kinds of things!
If you’re headed to Mexico City from a lower altitude, be aware of the possibility of altitude sickness and use the following advice to minimize or treat your symptoms. If you’re already accustomed to high elevations, hopefully you won’t experience these symptoms!
Related Reading: The Perfect 4 Day Itinerary for Mexico City
How do you prevent altitude sickness in Mexico City?
Drink plenty of fluids
Staying hydrated is the best way to avoid altitude sickness. But, between $8 airport water and bans on carrying liquid, most travelers are probably pretty dehydrated before they even get on the plane. Be mindful to drink plenty of water before and after you arrive in Mexico City.
Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine
Alcohol and tobacco can dehydrate you and enhance the symptoms of AMS. Instead of ordering a celebratory tequila when you arrive, stick to water and electrolytes for your first 24 hours in Mexico City to give your body time to adjust.
As a diuretic, caffeine can also lead to dehydration, so it’s best to limit your intake of caffeinated beverages. However, you also want to avoid caffeine withdrawal symptoms, which are just as terrible as altitude sickness. If you often consume high quantities of caffeine, don’t abandon it altogether, but limit your intake to avoid dehydration.
Get plenty of rest
Your body needs time to adjust to the change in altitude, so get plenty of rest when you first arrive in Mexico City. Being overtired will only add to any feelings of fatigue you’re experiencing as a result of the high altitude. It’s tempting to dive right into your itinerary, but you’ll feel better overall if you prioritize rest while your body adjusts.
Avoid strenuous activity
Avoid strenuous activity for the first few days after you arrive in Mexico City. There is less oxygen in the air due to the high altitude, which can leave you feeling fatigued, regardless of your physical fitness. So, don’t be alarmed if a light walk leaves you feeling exhausted! Keep the first day or so of your trip light so you can rest in between activities.
There are a few medications that can help prevent altitude sickness (I’ll go over them in the next section). Talk to your doctor about whether medication is right for you.
What is the best treatment for altitude sickness?
If you have mild symptoms of altitude sickness, such as headache, dizziness, and nausea, you may be able to treat them with over-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. You should also try drinking more fluids and limiting your physical activity until you feel better.
If your symptoms are more severe, such as shortness of breath, chest pain, or confusion, you need to seek medical attention immediately. You may need to be hospitalized and given supplemental oxygen or medication.
The CDC lists a few specific medications that can be used to treat altitude sickness (but don’t take anything without seeking medical advice from a licensed doctor– not me!):
- Acetazolamide (Diamox): This medication helps your body to get rid of excess carbon dioxide, which can build up in your blood at high altitudes.
- Dexamethasone (Decadron): This steroid medication can help to reduce inflammation and swelling in your brain and lungs.
- Nifedipine (Procardia): This medication can help to relax your blood vessels and improve blood flow to your brain and lungs.
If you’re looking for homeopathic remedies for altitude sickness, Ginko biloba supplements are a popular option. Ginkgo biloba is an herb that is known for its ability to improve blood circulation. It is thought to be helpful for altitude sickness, as it may help to increase blood flow to the brain and lungs.
There’s a product called Altitude Assist that contains Ginko biloba and other vitamins and herbs that may help prevent symptoms of altitude sickness. I haven’t tried this myself, so I encourage you to read up on it and do additional research before taking it.
When to seek medical care (and how to see a doctor)
You should see a doctor for altitude sickness if you experience any of the following symptoms.
- Severe headache that does not improve with over-the-counter pain relievers
- Shortness of breath, even when resting
- Chest tightness or pain
- Slurred speech
- Loss of consciousness
- Loss of coordination
- Difficulty sleeping
These symptoms indicate that you could be experiencing a condition known as hypoxia, which occurs when you have low levels of oxygen in your bloodstream.
If you are unsure whether or not you should see a doctor, it is always better to err on the side of caution. Altitude sickness can be life-threatening, so it is important to get medical attention as soon as possible if you are experiencing any concerning symptoms.
Here are some additional tips for deciding when to see a doctor for altitude sickness:
- If your symptoms are severe, or if they worsen over time, seek medical attention immediately.
- If you have any underlying medical conditions, such as heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes, seek medical attention immediately if you develop any symptoms of altitude sickness.
- If you are pregnant, seek medical attention immediately if you develop any symptoms of altitude sickness.
Remember, it is always better to be safe than sorry.
For non-emergent scenarios, you can see a doctor through a pharmacy. Many large pharmacies have consultorios, which are like walk-in clinics. You can show up and see a doctor within a few minutes (or longer, depending on the demand). Usually, they’ll write you a prescription that you can fill at the adjoining pharmacy. I’ve used consultorios a few times and have never had to pay to see a doctor, but some of them may charge $100 to $200 pesos.
The following are a few pharmacy chains that typically offer consultations on-site:
- Farmacia de Guadalajara
- Farmacia del Ahorro
- Farmacias Similares
Depending on where you are in Mexico City, there may be local, independent pharmacies or smaller chains that also offer consults. Just open Google Maps and search “farmacia” to see a list of options nearby.
If your symptoms are an emergency, such as chest pain, difficulty breathing, or loss of consciousness, visit an emergency room at a local hospital. You can dial 911 in Mexico for emergency assistance if needed.
💡 Pro Tip: Don’t forget to purchase travel insurance so you don’t have to pay out of pocket for unexpected medical expenses. SafetyWing is my preferred company to work with because their policies are designed for long-term travelers and digital nomads! You can even purchase SafetyWing policies after you’ve started your trip, which is great for those of us who sometimes forget! Click here to get a quote.
Practical advice for managing altitude sickness in Mexico City
As I said before, I’ve been affected by altitude sickness on almost every single one of my trips to Mexico City. At this point, I know to expect it, and I have my own little rituals for preparing and managing the symptoms. Maybe they’ll work for you, too! Here’s what I do:
- Drink lots of water during my travel day. Staying hydrated is a miracle cure for most garden-variety ailments, so resist the temptation to restrict your liquids on travel days. I get it. Disrupting the other passengers in your row to go to the bathroom is awkward, but losing vacation days to feeling wretched is worse. Bring a reusable water bottle and refill it at airport water fountains, or bite the bullet and pay for the expensive bottles on-site.
- Pack headache meds. I always travel with a small bottle of Tylenol or Advil in my purse to alleviate headaches. You can pick them up at the airport or in a local convenience store if you forget to pack them.
- Make the first day or so of your itinerary lighter. Plan to take it easy when you first arrive so you have time to adjust to Mexico City’s high altitude and thinner air. You’ll likely be worn out from your travel day, plus one of the most common altitude sickness symptoms is fatigue. I like to take the first day of my trip to do some cafe hopping or take leisurely walks in the neighborhood surrounding my Airbnb. This way, I can get the lay of the land without over-committing to a busy schedule.
Additional Mexico City travel tips
While I have you here… these tips are sure to come in handy during your time in Mexico City:
- Wear sunscreen. Mexico City may not always be hot, but the sun is extra punishing at high altitudes. Don’t forget to wear protective sun lotion when you’re out and about.
- Pack chapstick and moisturizer. Mexico City has a very dry climate that will likely leave your lips and skin feeling parched. I always pack a tube of hand lotion and some lip balm to prevent chapped lips and skin.
- Pack layers. Another aspect of the altitude of Mexico City is that the temperature can fluctuate significantly from day to night. Ensure you bring some warmer layers for after the sun goes down. Take a look at the climate data before you leave home to ensure you pack appropriately. I created this detailed Mexico City packing list with tips for what to bring, how to dress, and other considerations.
Continue Planning Your Trip!
Mexico Guide Books
This Mexico phrasebook will help you communicate, even if your Spanish skills are lacking.
This Mexico travel guide is packed with all the info you could ever need.
I use a combination of Booking, Airbnb, and VRBO to find accommodation throughout Mexico.
Some cities in Mexico have more listings on VRBO than Airbnb (or vice versa), so it’s best to check both to find the perfect place!
Rental cars add tons of flexibility to your travel plans. If you opt to rent one, I recommend using Discover Cars to find the best rates!
Skyscanner is my favorite tool for finding the best deals on airfare.
Never leave home without travel insurance.
SafetyWing offers super-affordable policies that cover things like medical expenses, trip interruption, and lost luggage. They even offer coverage for some expenses related to COVID-19. Their policies are particularly great for long-term travelers, making them a great option for Mexico.
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Still have questions?
Join my Female Travelers in Mexico Facebook group, a supportive community of fellow Mexico travel enthusiasts, where you can find answers to all your travel questions!