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Altitude sickness during Mount Kilimanjaro Climb

One of the important prerequisites of a successful summit attempt is being properly equipped.

Ensure that you are well equipped – read and print our Suggested Checklist below and mark it off, it will be an essential part of your preparation for the climb.

Altitudes are generally defined as …

High altitude 2,400m – 4,200m
Very high altitude 4,200m – 5,400m
Extreme altitude above 5,400m (Uhuru Peak is 5895m)

During the trek it is likely that all climbers will experience at least some form of mild altitude sickness. It is caused by the failure of the body to adapt quickly enough to the reduced level of oxygen in the air at an increased altitude.

There are many different symptoms but the most common are headaches, light headedness, nausea, loss of appetite, tingling in the extremities (toes, fingers) and a mild swelling of the face, ankles and fingers. These symptoms in a mild form are not serious and will normally disappear within 48 hours, the result of poor circulation or a small leakage of fluid within the body. In serious cases, the leakage can become large and start to fill up the brain cavity (Cerebral Oedema) or the lung cavity (Pulmonary Oedema). Cerebral Oedema is recognised by severe headaches, loss of balance and dizziness leading to coma. Pulmonary Oedema results in the coughing up of pink sputum. Both conditions, if left unchecked, will lead to coma and death unless a rapid descent is made.

Six factors that affect the incidence and severity of altitude illness :

1. Rate of ascent.
2. Altitude attained.
3. Length of exposure.
4. Level of exertion.
5. Hydration and diet.
6. Inherent physiological susceptibility.

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) :

The illnesses is commonly encountered at exceptional high altitudes, such as the summit area of Mount Kilimanjaro. Once apparent, can be most effectively treated by immediately taking the affected person to a lower altitude.

The symptoms of AMS include in the order normally experienced; headaches, nausea, anorexia, exhaustion, lassitude, rapid pulse, insomnia, swelling of the hands and feet and reduced urine output. Climbers can take precautions to at least minimize the severity of the illness, by maintaining a slow steady pace from day one, include an extra day of acclimatisation at a high altitude and by drinking at least 3-4 liters of water every day.

Preventative medicine is also available and you should consult your physician for specialist advice.

Fluid build-up may cause a condition known as edema, which can affect the lungs (pulmonary), preventing effective oxygen exchange, or effect the brain (cerebral) which will result in the swelling of the brain tissue. The latter can be lethal if not treated immediately or if symptoms are ignored.

Probably 70% of all people climbing Kilimanjaro will suffer to some extent from AMS. You should familiarise yourself with this condition and take preventative care.


Hypothermia or exposure is the lowering of the body’s core temperature. Once again prevention is the best cause of action. The correct equipment and clothing is critical in the prevention of Hypothermia. Do not allow your clothing to get wet from either rain or perspiration.

Please visit our Suggested Clothing Sections, for more information on the proper layering of clothing to prevent hypothermia.

Sun related injuries:

About 55% of the earths protective atmosphere is below an altitude of 5000m. Far less ultraviolet light is being filtered out, making the sun’s rays much more powerful, which could result in severe sun burning of the skin. It is strongly recommended to use a 20+ sun protection cream at lower altitudes, and a total block cream above an altitude of 3000m. It is also important to wear dark sun glasses preferably with side panels above 4000m in daytime and essential when walking through snow or ice.