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    What is altitude sickness and how to prevent it on Kilimanjaro?

    11 minutes read
    11 minutes read

    Most of the time, it’s not the fitness level that prevents trekkers from reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro but the notorious altitude sickness.

    What is altitude sickness, and how can you prevent it on Kilimanjaro?

    Altitude sickness, renowned as mountain sickness, is a combination of symptoms that can hit anytime if you walk or climb to a much higher altitude or elevation too quickly. You can prevent this by gradually letting your body get accustomed to the mountain conditions. This means you should choose the longer routes to allow your body time to adapt to lower oxygen levels as you scale Kilimanjaro.

    Consider reading until the end to know more about altitude sickness and the necessary prevention methods.

    What is altitude sickness?

    Altitude sickness

    As briefly discussed above, altitude sickness is a collection of symptoms that can strike anytime you get to a higher elevation or altitude too quickly. This occurs due to the sudden drop in barometric pressure, which is the air pressure surrounding you.

    When you go to a higher elevation, the barometric pressure drops, and the oxygen availability will decrease. Typically, you can experience altitude sickness when you go above 8,000 feet. This means you’ll likely experience altitude sickness once you set foot on the mighty Mount Kilimanjaro, which stands 19,340 feet tall.

    Moreover, it’s essential to know that there are three types of altitude sicknesses, and they are:

    Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)

    High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE)

    High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE)

    Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)

    Tanzania - acute mountain sickness - what is altitude sickness and how to prevent it on kilimanjaro?

    Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), the mildest form of altitude sickness, typically arises a few hours after ascending to higher or extreme altitudes. Although presenting with mild symptoms initially, without proper attention and management, it risks developing into severe altitude sickness.

    Therefore, if the symptoms of AMS persist or worsen during your climb, it is strongly advised to descend to a lower altitude immediately. Thus, it’s best to know its symptoms and tell your guide or other trekkers immediately once you have them. This way, you can save yourself from peril and get the proper treatment directly.

    If you’re not familiar with the AMS symptoms, they are:

    dizziness

    headache

    nausea and vomiting

    irritability

    muscle aches

    insomnia

    lack of appetite

    swollen face, hands and feet

    rapid heartbeat

    shortness of breath with physical struggle

    1. Who's at risk of altitude sickness?

    People with past bouts of acute mountain sickness.

    People with anaemia.

    Someone who suffered from heart or lung disease.

    People who choose to move onto high altitudes too quickly.

    Those who took medications, such as narcotic pain relievers or sleeping pills.

    This is why trekkers on Kilimanjaro are encouraged to undergo 3 to 4 months of cardio exercises, such as hiking and trail running, before climbing. This way, you will ramp up your hiking hours, capable hiking distance and altitude, and gain efficiency for your Kilimanjaro trek.

    2. Treatment for Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)

    The treatment of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) varies based on severity. Symptoms of altitude sickness can present themselves differently at extreme altitudes compared to mild altitude sickness.

    If you encounter AMS while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the best action is promptly returning to a lower altitude to avoid complications. This descent can help to alleviate symptoms and treat altitude sickness before it progresses to a more severe stage.

    You may also receive oxygen if you encounter breathing issues. Furthermore, according to Healthline, these are the corresponding medicines for AMS:

    Blood pressure medicine

    Lung inhalers

    Dexamethasone—to reduce brain swelling

    Aspirin—for headache relief

    Acetazolamide—to correct breathing difficulties

    For a much milder AMS, here are some of the basic treatments:

    • Retreating to a lower altitude.
    • Decreasing your activity level.
    • Recuperating for at least a day before proceeding to a higher altitude.
    • Hydrating with water.

    NOTE: It’s best to get checked by your doctor before heading out to your Kilimanjaro adventure. This way, you can get advice and prescription drugs for what your doctor sees fit.

    High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE)

    Tanzania - high altitude pulmonary edema - what is altitude sickness and how to prevent it on kilimanjaro?

    High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) is a condition where there’s a fluid build-up in the lungs. This can be life-threatening and typically happens when you go up quickly to more than 2500-3000 metres.

    Early symptoms of HAPE include:

    dry cough

    shortness of breathing

    reduced exercise performance

    cold and clammy skin

    irregular, rapid heartbeat

    For the worse type of HAPE, one may experience:

    rapid weight gain

    swollen lower extremities

    fatigue

    worsening cough

    chest pain

    weakness

    tachycardia (fast heartbeat)

    confusion

    bluish or greyish colour of skin

    frothy sputum

    High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE)

    Tanzania - high altitude cerebral edema - what is altitude sickness and how to prevent it on kilimanjaro?

    High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) is a severe condition due to fluid build-up in the lungs, typically happening when a rapid ascent is made to extreme altitudes exceeding 2500-3000 meters.

    The rapid increase in elevation, from sea level to high altitudes, causes reduced air pressure. This lack of pressure restricts the amount of oxygen entering our vascular system and can potentially trigger life-threatening conditions like HAPE.

    Early symptoms of HAPE include:

    confusion
    loss of consciousness
    fever
    ataxia
    photophobia
    rapid heartbeat
    lassitude
    altered mental state

    However, even the prospect of severe altitude sickness should not deter you from your ambition to climb Kilimanjaro. At extreme altitudes, proper guidance and support are crucial, and that’s where a trusted and reliable operator like Easy Travel comes into play.

    We prioritise our clients’ safety above everything else and can meticulously plan your entire climb, from preparing for the adventure to choosing the optimal descent route. Our dedicated team will monitor your vital signs twice daily to ensure you’re in ideal condition to conquer the summit safely.

    So, with Easy Travel, there’s nothing to worry about; you’re in capable hands and can tackle any challenges climbing Kilimanjaro may present.

    How to prevent altitude sickness

    Tanzania - how to prevent altitude sickness - what is altitude sickness and how to prevent it on kilimanjaro?

    High Altitude Cerebral Edema, commonly known as ACE, is Kilimanjaro’s most critical form of altitude sickness. During this stage, the brain accumulates fluid in the brain and can highly be life-threatening.

    This stage will need immediate medical attention to save the trekker’s life. Some of the signs of HACE are:

    1. Keep yourself hydrated

    You must keep yourself hydrated along your climb as you can quickly get dehydrated at a high, so drink water as often as possible.

    Dehydration happens because you breathe off moisture as the air is dry at a high altitude. You’ll also lose more water in your body as it adjusts to high altitude conditions.

    Thus, it will help you to drink more water during your climb to replace the water you’ll lose.

    2. Eat more

    When you reach high altitudes, you’ll likely lose your appetite. Since the weather is cold and you trek for long days, your body depletes many calories.

    Thus, it’s best to replace these calories by eating high-carbohydrate foods. You don’t have to worry about this part as your tour operator will prepare a good and healthy meal combo.,/p>

    3. Keep yourself warm

    Another thing that helps you avoid altitude sickness is keeping yourself warm, so you’ll need to pack the right gear not only to prevent hypothermia but also to stay comfy and warm, reducing the risk of altitude sickness.

    4. Take only the things you need

    Taking only the essentials with you will not need to exert as much energy carrying your bag, leading to oxygen conservation. In addition, it’s best to avoid tobacco, alcohol and, most importantly, sleeping tablets while on Mount Kilimanjaro.

    Insurance

    Tanzania - insurance - what is altitude sickness and how to prevent it on kilimanjaro?

    Travel insurance is compulsory if you want to trek on Mount Kilimanjaro. This is due to the remote location, high altitude and demanding mountain conditions.

    With the right travel insurance, you’ll have peace of mind while travelling by knowing that you’re covered in case an accident happens. This includes the cost of your lost luggage, medication and even a helicopter rescue from the mountain.

    Medication for altitude sickness

    Tanzania - diamox - what is altitude sickness and how to prevent it on kilimanjaro?

    The most common medication for altitude sickness is Diamox. It’s the brand name of acetazolamide, which is the primary treatment of oedema and glaucoma.

    Mountain rescue

    Tanzania - mountain rescue - what is altitude sickness and how to prevent it on kilimanjaro?

    Since Kilimanjaro is a remote place with high elevations, executing a rescue can be challenging. So, in rare cases when a trekker gets seriously injured or ill, helicopter rescue is required.L

    Since this can be expensive, getting the right insurance covering up to 6,00 metres of evacuation is necessary. This way, your insurance will cover all or most of your expenses.

    Once a distress call is made, the helicopter rescue will take action with a fully-trained medical staff within 5 minutes.

    Takeaway

    Since Kilimanjaro is almost 6,000 metres high, there’s a high possibility that you’ll experience altitude sickness. But, with the right gear and months of training, you’ll likely prevent suffering from severe altitude sicknesses, such as high altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPE) and high altitude cerebral oedema (HACE).

    It’s also best to take prudent actions to prevent altitude sickness, such as keeping yourself hydrated, eating a substantial amount of good food and keeping yourself warm throughout your Kilimanjaro adventure.

    Book with an experienced tour operator like Easy Travel, so they can help you not only plan your experience of a lifetime but also guide you through the whole process to prevent your Kili summit from being a failure.

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

    1. What is altitude sickness, and how does it affect climbers on Kilimanjaro?

    Altitude sickness, also known as AMS or acute mountain sickness, happens when your body can’t get used to the thinner air at high places. This can cause symptoms that can be mild or bad. Climbers on Kilimanjaro might feel ill if they go up the mountain too fast.

    On Kilimanjaro, the risk of altitude sickness increases due to the significant elevation gain over a relatively short period. Climbers may experience headaches, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, and other symptoms, which can hinder their ascent. 

    To avoid altitude sickness, climbers must acclimatise gradually, stay hydrated, and take appropriate precautions, like using the correct ascent profile. Understanding the risks and possible symptoms is crucial for a successful climb.

    2. How can climbers prevent altitude sickness while climbing Kilimanjaro?

    To prevent altitude sickness on Kilimanjaro, climbers should follow several essential guidelines. First, ensure a slow and steady ascent, allowing the body to acclimatise and adapt to decreasing oxygen levels.

    Second, stay adequately hydrated by drinking plenty of water each day.

    Third, maintain a high-calorie diet to fuel the body for the substantial physical effort required during the climb.

    Climbers can also ask their doctor about medications, such as acetazolamide (Diamox), which could help acclimatisation. Remember, the most crucial factor is to listen to your body and acknowledge any symptoms that signal the need for rest or descent.

    3. What signs of mild altitude sickness, and when should climbers be concerned?

    Mild altitude sickness symptoms can include headache, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, and difficulty sleeping. It is common for most climbers to experience mild symptoms initially due to the rapid change in elevation on Kilimanjaro.

    However, climbers should be concerned if these symptoms worsen, persist, or are accompanied by other severe symptoms such as ataxia (loss of coordination) or shortness of breath at rest.

    Suppose mild symptoms don’t improve with rest, hydration, and medication. In that case, it is essential to consider descending to a lower altitude to avoid developing severe altitude sickness, which can be life-threatening.

    4. How do tour operators and guides help climbers manage altitude sickness on Kilimanjaro?

    Tour operators and guides are experienced in helping climbers manage the altitude sickness risks on Kilimanjaro. They follow a carefully designed ascent profile to aid acclimatisation, perform regular health checks, and monitor each climber’s condition throughout the ascent.

    In addition, they emphasise the importance of hydration, nutrition, and rest for a successful climb. The guides are knowledgeable about recognising early symptoms of altitude sickness and will recommend an immediate descent if they assess that a climber is at risk of developing severe symptoms.

    Choosing a credible and reliable operator is vital for a safe and enjoyable Kilimanjaro experience.

    5. Can people with existing health conditions or concerns climb Kilimanjaro safely?

    If you have health issues, make sure to talk to your doctor before you try to climb Kilimanjaro. Conditions like heart or lung problems can make you more likely to get sick from the high altitude or have other troubles on the climb.

    You must get a check-up and an OK from your doctor to ensure you’re safe and keep risks low during your climb. Let your trip leader and guides know if you have any health issues. This way, they can plan the climb better and give you the right help during your trip.

    6. Are medications helpful in preventing or treating altitude sickness in Kilimanjaro?

    Yes, medicine can help stop or treat altitude sickness in Kilimanjaro. Acetazolamide (Diamox) is a common one. It enables you to avoid getting sick by helping your body get used to less oxygen faster. It does this by making you breathe more quickly.

    But make sure you talk to a doctor before using the medicine, as there could be side effects. Medicine should be used along with getting used to the high altitude rather than replace a good plan for going up and down the mountain.

    7. What do climbers do when they experience severe altitude sickness on Kilimanjaro?

    When experiencing severe altitude sickness symptoms such as ataxia, chest tightness, severe breathlessness, or coughing up frothy fluid, it is crucial to begin an immediate descent to a lower altitude under the guidance of the tour operator or guides. Severe altitude sickness is a life-threatening emergency, and delaying the descent can have dangerous consequences.

    Accompanied by a guide, the affected climber should reach a lower altitude as quickly and safely as possible to alleviate the symptoms and seek further medical assistance, if necessary. In such cases, prioritising health over achieving the summit goal is essential.

    8. What differentiates acute mountain sickness (AMS) from high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE)?

    Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is a general term for the mild to moderate symptoms of altitude sickness that affect climbers due to the reduced oxygen levels at high altitudes. Symptoms can include headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and shortness of breath.

    High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) is a more severe and life-threatening form of altitude sickness caused by fluid accumulation in the lungs. This condition can progress rapidly and result in extreme shortness of breath, chest pain, and coughing up frothy fluid. Immediate descent and medical attention are necessary in cases of HAPE.

    9. How does the route choice affect the risk of altitude sickness on Kilimanjaro?

    Choosing the correct route on Kilimanjaro can significantly affect the risk of altitude sickness. Longer routes, which offer a slow and steady ascent with proper acclimatisation days, are preferred for reducing the risk.

    Routes like the Lemosho and Northern Circuit let you climb slowly, helping your body get used to high places. Short routes, like the Marangu and Umbwe, could make you more likely to get sick from high altitude because you go up quickly, and your body might not have enough time to adjust.

    Discussing your preferences and concerns with a trusted tour operator can help you select the optimal route for a safe and enjoyable experience.

    10. How long does it take for altitude sickness symptoms to subside after descending to a lower altitude?

    The time it takes for altitude sickness symptoms to subside after descending will vary depending on the severity of symptoms, individual physiology, and the altitude difference. Generally, mild symptoms of altitude sickness can improve significantly within several hours to a day after descending to a lower elevation.

    However, severe symptoms or conditions like HAPE or HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema) may take longer to resolve and may require medical intervention. It is crucial to monitor one’s condition closely after descending and seek professional medical advice if symptoms persist or worsen.

    11. Can children and teenagers climb Kilimanjaro safely without altitude sickness concerns?

    Children and teenagers can safely climb Kilimanjaro with proper preparation, guidance, and acclimatisation. However, they can be more vulnerable to altitude sickness compared to adults.

    Parental supervision, consultation with a healthcare professional, and open communication with tour operators and guides are essential to ensure safety. Carefully selecting a route that allows for adequate acclimatisation, closely monitoring symptoms, and prioritising health over summit goals will help provide a safe and enjoyable experience for young climbers on Kilimanjaro.

    Musaddiq Gulamhussein - Owner - Easy Travel Tanzania

    About the author: Musaddiq

    Meet Musaddiq Gulamhussein, owner of Easy Travel Tanzania, a tour company creating life-changing safari experiences for over 35 years. Musaddiq has explored Tanzania, developing a deep understanding of the local cultures and traditions. Follow his journey and gain insights into the African Safari experience through Easy Travel's social media and blog.

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