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

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    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, also known as mountain sickness, is a combination of symptoms that can hit anytime if you walk or climb to a higher altitude or elevation too quickly.

    You can prevent this from happening by letting your body get accustomed to the mountain conditions gradually. 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 the rest of this article if you would like 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 as you get to a higher elevation or altitude too quickly. This happens due to the sudden drop of 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 be less. 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 important 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 or commonly known as AMS is the mildest form of altitude sickness. AMS typically arises after some hours of going into higher altitudes.

    Thus, it’s best to be aware of its symptoms and tell your guide right away or other trekkers once you have them. This way, you can save yourself from peril and get the right treatment right away.

    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

    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 before climbing, such as hiking and trail running. This way, you will ramp up your hiking hours, capable hiking distance and altitude gain efficiency for your Kilimanjaro trek.

    Treatment for Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)

    The treatment of acute mountain sickness differs based on its severity, but if you encounter AMS on Mount Kilimanjaro, it’s best to return to a lower altitude to avoid complications.

    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 Cerebral Edema or commonly known as ACE, is the 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:

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

    However, there’s nothing to worry about as long as you choose a trusted and reliable tour operator like Easy Travel. We always put the safety of our clients first, above all else, and can help you plan your entire climb, from preparations to the descent route.

    Our staff will check your vital signs twice a day to ensure you’re in a good condition to scale the summit safely.

    How to prevent altitude sickness

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

    Altitude sickness can hinder your goal to reach the summit successfully, so it’s best to prevent it instead of waiting to medicate it.

    But, how do you prevent altitude sickness? To prevent altitude sickness, you need to:

    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.

    Dehydrations 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 to drink more water during your climb to replace the water you’ll lose.

    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 a significant amount of calories.

    Thus, it’s best to replace these calories by eating high carbohydrate foods. The good thing is that you don’t have to worry about this part as your tour operator will prepare a good and healthy meal combo for you.

    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.

    Take only the things you need

    By taking only the essentials with you, you will not need to exert as much energy carrying your bag, leading to conservation of oxygen.

    In addition, it’s best to avoid tobacco, alcohol and most importantly, sleeping tablets while on Mount Kilimanjaro.


    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 conditions of the mountain.

    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 full 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 very challenging. So, in rare cases when a trekker gets seriously injured or ill, helicopter rescue is required.

    Since this can be quite expensive, getting the right insurance that covers up to 6,00 metres of evacuation is a must. 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.


    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 the severe forms of 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 being a fail. 

    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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