When climbing Kilimanjaro, altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), can be a serious problem. Simply said, this is due to the extreme altitude climbers must endure to reach the summit, at Uhuru peak. Due to the devastating effects of altitude sickness, hundreds of trekkers are forced to return each year.

Not all trekkers experience acute mountain sickness; many also frequently have HAPE or HACE. If not addressed, these two conditions can potentially be fatal.

Therefore, it’s crucial that you comprehend the dangers, signs, drugs, and treatments associated with altitude sickness before climbing Kilimanjaro. Kilimanjaro’s elevation shouldn’t be taken lightly. You must successfully acclimatize if you want to climb the mountain.

What is Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness, also called Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), also known as Soroche or hypobaropathy is a form of Sickness caused by reduced atmospheric pressure as a result of altitude sickness.

What causes Altitude Sickness or Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)

Exposing yourself to high elevations and high altitudes of about 2400 meters and above and lacking proper acclimatization causes Altitude Sickness. Since Mount Kilimanjaro measures a staggering 5,895meters above sea level, this is way above the standard elevation of 2400 meters which would result in physical distress causing difficulty in adjusting to lower oxygen pressure.

At these high altitudes of the Majestic Mount Kilimanjaro, the air becomes less compressed and is, therefore, thinner causing Altitude Sickness, making it lesser than what you are normally used to breathing in, something can only be compared to ‘working with only one lung’.

Altitude Sickness (AMS) can be severe at times as it makes your body weak, even though if your condition worsens there is a possibility of air evacuation or descending the mountain when necessary.

Who is at risk of Altitude Sickness?

Fitter people are at lesser risk of having Altitude Sickness symptoms but it is not easy to predict who can and cannot experience symptoms of Altitude Sickness. Fit people’s cardiovascular systems can withstand longer periods on low pressures that come with higher altitudes without much strain. Altitudes above 3500 meters, however, can cause altitude sickness often no matter how fit you may be especially if you are not familiar with hiking in environments with low atmospheric pressures.

Best way to How to minimise your chances of Altitude Sickness on Mount Kilimanjaro’s high altitudes

Keeping fit and doing exercise on high altitudes before climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is a great way to familiarize with high elevations in order to minimize Altitude sickness.

 

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Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

Symptoms of AMS may include headache, nausea/vomiting, shortness of breath, tiredness/fatigue, trouble sleeping/insomnia, loss of appetite, and dizziness.

The symptoms start showing a few hours after reaching high altitude and mild cases may resolve in one to three days. Serious AMS cases may require oxygen, medication and moving to slightly lower altitude using a method known as acclimatization.

Severe AMS symptoms are like;

  • Confusion and sometimes hallucinations
  • Shortness of breath even at rest
  • Inability to walk ( mobility issues)
  • A cough that produces a white or pink frothy substance
  • Loss of coordination and trouble walking
  • A severe headache that doesn’t get better with medication
  • A tightening in your chest

How to avoid altitude sickness on Mount Kilimanjaro

  1. Walk high, sleep low. Climbing high and sleeping low if done gradually can help combat Altitude Sickness. This ensures that you familiarize and get used to the low pressures of the Mountain letting you to recover gradually overnight when you rest.
  2. Slow and steady. Your mountain guides will advise you to go slow while maintaining a steady speed, this helps to breathe at a constant rate and slower, removing the strain you might expose to your heart and lungs if you breathe hard and overwork.
  3. Drink as much water as possible. You are advised to drink at least 3 litres of water per day. Keeping your body hydrated helps in acclimatization. Altitude Sickness on the mountain resemble dehydration symptoms so remember to drink as much water as possible.
  4. Diamox. One of the best drugs that will help you avoid and reduce the symptoms of Altitude Sickness is Diamox. You are strongly advised to consult your local doctor before climbing Mount Kilimanjaro as it should be prescribed by your doctor in case you have any underlying medical conditions that are not recommended for you to use Diamox.

 

Effects of High Altitudes & low atmospheric pressure

  1. Low oxygen saturation

Every breath you take at high altitudes carries less oxygen to the blood making your blood poorly saturated which basically causes you to feel more tired and breathless.

Very low oxygen saturation in your blood can also cause impaired mental functions, reduce your ability to make decisions which can be dangerous that is why our guides always carry pulse-oxymeters to check your oxygen saturation every day.

  1. Cerebral oedema

Very low air pressure can cause fluid to clog your sinuses and air cavities in the skull. At first, it may seem like mild headaches or migraines, but can eventually cause disorientation, coma and can be fatal resulting in death.

  1. Pulmonary oedema

The main cause of Pulmonary Oedema is brought about by very low pressure in the lungs making fluid to pass through tissues and air spaces in the lungs which eventually may cause difficulty in breathing. It may also cause pneumonia especially when you are asleep.

How to diagnose Altitude Sickness and AMS First Aid

AMS is not gradual, it happens rapidly and spontaneously with the first symptoms beginning to show, among the symptoms include breathlessness, fatigue, and headaches.

As for AMS first aid, our experienced mountain guides are trained to diagnose and recognise AMS  by the early symptoms and perform first aid. They will monitor your blood oxygen saturation and take the necessary steps to help salvage the situation by using the medication, high-altitude sleeping masks and oxygen cylinders. We strongly advise you to report accurate symptoms as soon as possible to get immediate help.

High Altitude Advice: The Dos and the Donts

Here is some advice from Tranquil Kilimanjaro that you should take into consideration while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Meru, Mount Kenya, Oldonyo Lengai or Mount Ruwenzori for a successful climb and an equally successful summit.

Take your time: Mount Kilimanjaro is not a 100-meter sprint, it is more of a marathon, endurance is key for a successful summit, so choose the longer routes that will give you enough time to acclimatize. Choose the routes that follow the “Slow and Steady” rule well. A great example of the routes is the Northern Circuit route.

Drink More Water; Always keep your body hydrated at all times while hiking, drink plenty of water to minimize the Altitude Symptoms at least 3-4 litres a day.

Eat Well (High Carbohydrate Meal); You will need enough energy and stamina for hiking days. It is advisable that your Mount Kilimanjaro meals contain great proportions of a high carbohydrate diet. Do not worry our very able cooks will take care of it but you are also allowed to come with your snacks.

Do not drink alcohol; Alcohol may aggravate high Altitude Sickness symptoms and slow down the acclimatization process, so it is better to avoid alcohol while climbing.

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