Mountain Sickness and Medications
About Altitude Sickness
If you are planning to climb Mount Kilimanjaro
you will sooner or later hear about altitude
For those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of
altitude illness, here are answers to the most
common questions regarding mountain sickness.
The definition of altitude
High Altitude: 1500 - 3500 m (5000 - 11500 ft)
Very High Altitude: 3500 - 5500 m (11500 - 18000
Extreme Altitude: above 5500 m (18000 ft)
What is altitude sickness?
Altitude sickness is a range of symptoms that
can occur when someone ascends to a high
altitude too rapidly, without sufficient
The body can adjust to the reduced air pressure
at higher altitude, but only at a rate of about
300 m (1000 ft) altitude gain per day.
If you ascend faster, and everybody climbing
Kilimanjaro will, then you may develop altitude
There are three main forms of altitude sickness:
AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) is very common
when climbing Kilimanjaro.
HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) is a fluid
build up in the lungs.
HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema) is fluid
build up in the brain.
Both HAPE and HACE are potentially fatal but are
thankfully extremely rare during a well planned
What exactly causes the individual symptoms of
altitude sickness is still not fully understood.
If you want to know more details, there is a
link to an excellent tutorial at the bottom of
There is also a range of other symptoms you are
likely to experience during a Kilimanjaro climb
due to the altitude. They are considered normal
and shouldn't worry you:
You breathe faster,
you are out of breath sooner,
you may experience periodic breathing at night
(where you stop breathing for up to 15 seconds,
and then breathe very fast to make up for it,
scary but harmless),
you may wake up frequently at night,
You need to urinate a lot more often.
None of those symptoms are altitude sickness.
What are the symptoms of altitude sickness?
The symptoms of AMS are headaches, loss of
appetite, nausea, vomiting, sleeplessness,
fatigue, dizziness. Everybody can expect to
experience at least some of these symptoms in a
The most obvious symptoms for HAPE are extreme
breathlessness, even at rest; rattling breath,
coughing with pink froth and blue lips or finger
HACE becomes apparent as a lack of coordination,
inability to walk in a straight line, confusion
and irrational behaviors (to the point of not
acknowledging the symptoms).
How dangerous is altitude sickness?
The symptoms of acute mountain sickness as
described above are self limiting and not
dangerous. In fact, your guides may tell you
during the briefing not to worry, that it is
totally normal to be throwing up repeatedly
during that last final push top the summit.
However, if you do experience symptoms, your
guides should also keep monitoring you, because
AMS can progress to one of the more severe forms
of altitude sickness.
HAPE and HACE are potentially fatal!
Make sure that you always remain in contact with
your guides and let them know exactly how you
are feeling. Also keep an eye on your climbing
partners, since people suffering from these
severe conditions may not be able to correctly
assess their own condition.
Anybody experiencing symptoms that could
indicate HAPE or HACE needs to descend
IMMEDIATELY or they will die.
But please don't panic now. As I said above,
these conditions are extremely rare, provided
you act sensibly when on the mountain.
Who gets altitude sickness?
Anybody can get altitude sickness. There is no
way to predict how your body will react if
exposed to high altitude without proper
Susceptibility to altitude sickness is random.
Fitness is no protection. People who are
extremely fit and exercise a lot get it just an
easily as couch potatoes. There are many stories
that indicate they may be even more susceptible!
Men appear to be more susceptible than women,
especially young and fit men. (Competitiveness
and the desire to show off plays a part in this.
Men will often ascend faster. Too fast.)
Older people seem to be less susceptible. (Older
people will ascend more slowly, and nothing
protects you better from altitude sickness than
When do you get altitude sickness?
Highly susceptible people can experience
symptoms from 2500 m (7000 ft) onwards, in rare
cases even below that. The chance of developing
AMS increases with the height but the rate of
altitude gain is even more important.
Mt. Kilimanjaro is 5895 m (19340 ft) high.
Pretty much everybody on a Kilimanjaro climb
will experience some symptoms of altitude
sickness during that last push to the summit.
There are other factors that increase the
likelihood of altitude sickness, apart from the
absolute height itself:
Rate at which a height is achieved (the faster
you ascend the bigger the risk of developing
symptoms, this factor is more important than the
absolute height itself!)
Time spent at height (symptoms start appearing
within 6-10 hours though they can be delayed)
Symptoms of acute mountain sickness typically
take one or two days to disappear. If you keep
ascending they may not go away. For most people
the symptoms come and go during the day,
disappear overnight, only to come back the next
day as the climb continues.
AMS can be very unpleasant, but with the right
preparation and at a sensible pace, most people
can climb to at least the last camp below the
crater rim (around 4700m). It's that last push
to the summit where AMS becomes the make it or
break it issue.
You climb Kilimanjaro with knowledge that every
detail of your trip has been designed by one of
the professional mountain guide and high
Our first goal
Your safety is our paramount concern on your
Kilimanjaro trek. You leave home with the
comfort of knowing that during your trek all you
have to worry about is putting one foot in front
of the other. We take care of the rest.
Twice a day while on in the morning before you
start your trek guides will monitor your lungs
accomplish by using a stethoscope, and in the
evening - our guides perform a thorough health
check, using their specialized High Altitude
Medical Paper and conjunction with pulse-ox
meters. Regular medical checks help keep your
African Outreach Adventure guides informed about
your condition, so that he can make informed
decisions about your climb.