High Altitude and Sickness

High attitude is defined in the following three major categories:

  • High Altitude: 5,000 – 11,000 ft
  • Very High Altitude: 11,500 – 18,000 ft
  • Extreme Altitude: 18,000ft + (Kilimanjaro summit has 19,340 ft)

The chances of acquiring high altitude sicknesses are high unless one has a previous experience of trekking or climbing high altitudes. Mt. Kilimanjaro climbing is one of the most dangerous things to do since yearly deaths have been reported associated with high altitude sicknesses. To successfully reach the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro is by going slowly i.e. the more days you have at altitude and the slower the rate of ascent the greater the chances of completing the journey.

These high altitude sicknesses can be grouped as follows

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)

This is very common at high altitudes ranging from 10,000ft. It’s approximated that at least 75% people will suffer mild symptoms of AMS. There are four factors related to AMS:

  • High Altitude
  • Fast Rate of Ascent
  • High Degree of Exertion
  • Dehydration

The acute altitude sicknesses are further broken into mild, moderate and severe.

Mild Acute Mountain Sickness

This has the following symptoms

  • Headache
  • Nausea & Dizziness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Disturbed sleep
  • General feeling of malaise

These symptoms tend to be worse at night and when respiratory drive is decreased. The sickness does not interfere with the normal activity as one is likely to adjust between the second to the fourth day. One can continue climbing as long as the symptoms remain mild and are monitored.

Severe Acute Mountain Sickness:

The symptoms are an increase in the severity of:

  • Shortness of breath at rest
  • Inability to walk
  • Decreasing mental status
  • Fluid build-up in the lungs

Severe Acute Mountain Sickness requires immediate descent to a lower altitude of around 2,000ft. The two other serious conditions associated with

Severe Acute Mountain Sickness are

High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPO)

This results from a lack of oxygen resulting in a build up of fluid in the lungs. The fluid prevents effective oxygen exchange and as the condition worsens the level of oxygen in the bloodstream decreases, which leads to cyanosis, impaired cerebral function, and ultimately death. Anyone suffering from symptoms must be evacuated to a medical facility for treatment.

Symptoms include

  • Shortness of breath (at rest)
  • Tightness in the chest, and a persistent cough bringing up white, watery, or frothy fluid
  • Marked fatigue and weakness
  • A feeling of impending suffocation at night
  • Confusion, and irrational behavior

High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACO)

It results from a lack of oxygen resulting in a build up of fluid in brain causing swelling of brain tissue. HACO usually occurs after a week or more at high altitude. Severe cases can lead to death if not treated quickly. Anyone suffering from symptoms must be evacuated to a medical facility for treatment. 

Symptoms include

  • Headache
  • Weakness
  • Disorientation
  • Loss of co-ordination
  • Decreasing levels of consciousness
  • Loss of memory
  • Hallucinations & Psychotic behavior
  • Coma

General Prevention Measures and Treatment

Diamox: An approved drug that prevents and treats AMS. The drug acidifies blood increasing respiration hence accelerated acclimatization.

ALTI-VIT: A unique vitamin formula which has been developed to support your body’s requirements at Altitude.

Ibuprofen/Nurofen: Effective at relieving altitude induced headaches.