The following are the more common health issues on Kilimanjaro. Most people survive their experience on the mountain without any of these issues, save for a bit of sleep deprivation. Blisters, of course, are another common complaint.
Coughs, too, are not infrequent, thanks to the dry, dusty atmosphere present at altitude. But most people survive on Kilimanjaro health intact.
Coughs and colds
One of the most common health problems on Kilimanjaro are coughs and colds. Aspirin can be taken for a cold; lozenges containing anaesthetic are useful for a sore throat, as is gargling with warm salty water. Drinking plenty helps too. A cough that produces mucus has one of a number of causes; most likely are the common cold or irritation of the bronchi by cold air which produces symptoms that are similar to flu.It could, however, point to altitude sickness.
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A cough that produces thick green and yellow mucus could indicate bronchitis. If there is also chest pain (most severe when the patient breathes out), a high fever and blood-stained mucus, any of these could indicate pneumonia, requiring a course of antibiotics. Consult a doctor.
Exposure on Kilimanjaro
Also known as hypothermia, this is caused on Kilimanjaro by a combination of exhaustion, high altitude, dehydration, lack of food and not wearing enough warm clothes against the cold. Note that it does not need to be very cold for exposure to occur. Make sure everyone, particularly your porters, is properly equipped.
Symptoms of exposure on Kilimanjaro
These include a low body temperature (below 34.5ºC or 94ºF), poor coordination, exhaustion and shivering. As the condition deteriorates the shivering ceases, coordination gets worse making walking difficult and the patient may start hallucinating. The pulse then slows and unconsciousness and death follow shortly.
Treatment involves thoroughly warming the patient quickly. Find shelter as soon as possible. Put the patient, without their clothes, into a sleeping-bag with hot water bottles (use your water bottles); someone else should take their clothes off, too, and get into the sleeping bag with the patient. Nothing like bodily warmth to hasten recovery.
Frostbite on Kilimanjaro
Keeping warm on Kili
The severe form of frostbite that leads to the loss of fingers and toes rarely happens to trekkers on Kilimanjaro.You could, however, be affected if you get stuck or lost in particularly inclement weather. Ensure that all members of your party are properly kitted out with thick socks, boots, gloves and woolly hats.
The first stage of frostbite is known as ‘frostnip’. The fingers or toes first become cold and painful, then numb and white. Heat them up on a warm part of the body (eg an armpit) until the colour comes back. In cases of severe frostbite the affected part of the body becomes frozen. Don’t try to warm it up until you reach a lodge/camp. Immersion in warm water (40ºC or 100ºF) is the treatment. Medical help should then be sought.
Stomach problems on Kilimanjaro
The mountain crews these days are much more enlightened when it comes to hygiene. This is particularly true in the wake of COVID, and these days you’ll find bottles of anti-bacterial handwash on every trek. Nevertheless, stomach cramps, diarrhoea and constipations remain some of the more common health problems on Kilimanjaro.
When it comes to diarrhoea, often this is often contracted before the sufferer even sets foot on the mountain. Unfortunately, the symptoms only properly develop when you’re on Kili. This can make your trek painful, exhausting (especially if you’re forced to get up several times each night to visit the toilet) and embarrassing. Obviously you can minimise your chances of picking up a bug by washing your hands thoroughly. Make sure your fellow trekkers and your crew are all equally observant of hygiene protocols too.
Bringing a rehydration treatment such as Dioralyte is a good idea too, as it will help to replace lost salts and minerals. The other popular stomach medication that people bring is loperamide, usually sold under the brand name Imodium. This essentially reduces the symptoms of diarrhoea. In other words, you won’t feel the need to visit the toilet every few minutes. So it can effectively minimise the discomfort you feel on Kili. But note that it is not a cure; it merely alleviates the symptoms. Note, too, that if you have blood or mucus in your stools then loperamide is not recommended.
Just about everybody will suffer from some sort of sleep deprivation to some degree on the mountain. It’s got to be the most common health issue on Kilimanjaro. Even if you are one of these rare people who sleep soundly and deeply in a tent, you will probably still have one night when you don’t get any sleep at all. Namely, on the night-time walk to the summit!
Using ear plugs and an eye mask can help block out campsite noise and light. Making sure you are warm enough in your sleeping bag is also vital, of course. (For this reason, it might be worth trying your sleeping bag out before you arrive in Tanznaia. Wearing the clothes that you plan to wear at night on Kili inside the bag is also a good idea. This will make the whole experience feel less alien when you’re actually on the mountain.
What you must not do is use sleeping tablets. These depress your respiratory system, which is the last thing you want to do on the mountain.
If you have had a vaginal infection in the past it would be a good idea to bring a course of treatment in case it recurs.
If you’ve suffered from these in the past bring the required medication with you since haemorrhoids can flare up on a trek up Kilimanjaro, particularly if you get constipated.
Though the snows of Kilimanjaro are fast disappearing, you are still strongly advised to wear sunglasses when walking on the summit – particularly if you plan on spending more than just a few minutes up there – to prevent this uncomfortable, though temporary, condition.
Ensure everyone in your group, including porters, has eye protection. If you lose your sunglasses a piece of cardboard with two narrow slits (just wide enough to see through) will protect your eyes. But if that fails and snow-blindness develops, the cure is to keep eyes closed and lie down in a dark room. Eye-drops and aspirin can be helpful.
Protect against sunburn on Kilimanjaro by wearing a hat, sunglasses and a shirt with a collar that can be turned up. At altitude in particular you’ll also need sunscreen for your face.
Care of feet, ankles and knees on Kilimanjaro
Issues to do with your knees, ankles and feet are worrying as they can prevent you from getting to the summit. So it’s important to look after them when ascending. Thankfully, the slow ascent pace means it’s rare that people twist or damage their legs and feet on the way up.
Nevertheless, a twisted ankle, swollen knee or a septic blister on your foot could ruin your trek up Kilimanjaro. So it’s important to take care to avoid these. Choose comfortable boots with good ankle support. Don’t carry too heavy a load. Wash your feet and change your socks regularly. During lunch stops take off your boots and socks and let them dry in the sun. Attend to any blister as soon as you feel it developing.
Blisters on Kilimanjaro
There are a number of ways to treat blisters but on Kilimanjaro prevention is far better than cure. So stop immediately you feel a ‘hot spot’ forming and cover it with a blister plaster such as Compeed. One trekker suggests using the membrane inside an egg-shell as an alternative form of Second Skin. If a blister does form you can either burst it with a needle (sterilized in a flame) then apply a dressing or build a moleskin dressing around the unburst blister to protect it.
You can lessen the risk of a sprained ankle on Kilimanjaro by wearing boots which offer good support. Watch where you walk, too. If you do sprain an ankle, cool it in a stream and keep it bandaged. If it’s very painful you’ll probably have to abandon your trek and return to your hotel. Aspirin is helpful for reducing pain and swelling.
These are most common after long stretches of walking downhill. For example, the long descent from the summit of Kilimanjaro. So it’s important not to take long strides as you descend, because small steps lessen the jarring on the knee. What’s more, it may be helpful to wear knee supports and use walking poles for long descents. This is especially true if you’ve had problems with your knees before.