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High Altitude Sickness on Kilimanjaro

If you’re planning an unforgettable adventure to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, it’s crucial to equip yourself with knowledge about high altitude sickness. One of the main goals to undertake such an experience is to, of course, summit Mount Kilimanjaro. However, many are not able to, with the main reason being poor acclimatisation. 

What is High Altitude Acclimatisation?

High altitude acclimatisation is the process by which your body adjusts to reduced oxygen levels at higher elevations. As you ascend Mount Kilimanjaro, the air becomes thinner, making it harder for your body to get the oxygen it needs. Acclimatisation refers to  the physical change that happens in your body to help your body adapt to these changes gradually.

Recognising the Symptoms of High Altitude Sickness

Making the mistake of hiking too quickly will lead to trekkers developing altitude sickness, this is when the body struggles and reacts badly to the low oxygen conditions in the atmosphere.

It’s essential to be familiar with the symptoms of high altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS). Look out for the following signs:

– Headache, particularly a persistent one that worsens over time

– Nausea or vomiting

– Fatigue or weakness

– Dizziness or lightheadedness

– Difficulty sleeping

– Loss of appetite

– Shortness of breath

– Swelling of the face, hands, or feet

How to Treat High Altitude Sickness

If you or someone in your group experiences symptoms of high altitude sickness, take the following steps:

– Descend to a lower altitude immediately, allowing your body to adjust to higher oxygen levels.

– Rest and avoid any strenuous activity until symptoms improve.

– Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids.

– Over-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofen, can help relieve headaches and alleviate symptoms. Acetazolamide (Diamox) can help to prevent and treat AMS and anti-nausea medication like promethazine will help too. 

Severe cases of altitude sickness on Kilimanjaro can only be treated by immediate descent to around 600 m (2,000 ft) or lower. ZAFS guides will always carry oxygen for emergencies, so when a severe case of AMS is suspected, your guide will give you some of this emergency oxygen but then also get you to descend the mountain promptly but safely. There will be enough guides present to help the trekker with AMS to descend whilst the others can still continue their climb. 

Rules for Successful Acclimatisation

To increase your chances of a successful climb, keep these rules for acclimatisation in mind:

Ascend slowly: Gradual ascent allows your body to adjust and minimise the risk of altitude sickness. It’s perfectly normal to get mild altitude sickness. Once you climb above 3,000 metres, more than 75% of Kilimanjaro climbers develop AMS. 

Prepare for AMS mentally: it is definitely unpleasant but there is no way to predict who will develop these symptoms and when. Age, sex or even physical fitness are not linked to whether you’ll get altitude sickness or not. If you’re an experienced trekker and haven’t faced any symptoms at high altitudes then that also doesn’t mean you won’t develop it on another trip. Thats why, it’s important to be mentally prepared that there may be a chance you develop AMS and to push through these unpleasant symptoms. 

Take rest days: Plan rest days during your climb to give your body time to adapt and recover. We recommend doing a seven or eight day climb as the rate of ascent will be slow enough for your body to adjust to the increasing altitude. 

Stay hydrated: Drink at least 4-5  litres of water per day to prevent dehydration. You dehydrate faster when your breathing becomes quick and heavy. 

Eat a balanced diet: Maintain a healthy, high-calorie diet to fuel your body during the climb. ZAFS chefs have been trained to cook you nutritious and balanced meals throughout the trek.

Avoid alcohol and tobacco: These substances can hinder acclimatisation and increase the risk of altitude sickness.

– Regularly communicate with your guides: no matter how small, it is important to communicate with your guide on how you’re feeling as they are there to help you and have been trained to combat illnesses on the mountain and your safety is their priority. 

Monitoring Your Health on Mount Kilimanjaro

Keeping a close eye on your health throughout the climb is essential. Here’s how you can monitor your well-being:

– Check your oxygen saturation levels regularly using a portable pulse oximeter.

– Monitor your heart rate and breathing rate during rest and activity.

– Maintain open communication with your guide and fellow climbers about any symptoms or concerns you may have.

– Stay observant of your own body and listen to its signals. Don’t hesitate to seek help if you or someone in your group experiences severe symptoms.

It’s imperative that you only climb Kilimanjaro with a reputable tour operator, as they will only use properly trained and experienced guides. Your guides are there to keep you safe and treat you should you become ill or injured.

At ZAFS we prioritise your Kilimanjaro safety above everything else. All of our guides are trained wilderness first responders (WFRs), which is the highest non-medical certification available to outdoor guides. WFRs are trained to make critical medical and evacuation decisions on site.

Now that you’re equipped with valuable knowledge about high altitude sickness and how to mitigate its risks, you can embark on your Mount Kilimanjaro adventure confidently. Remember, your safety and well-being should always be a priority.


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