Altitude Sickness

The explanation of altitude sickness is simple. There is always the same ratio of oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere weather you are on beach or on Kilimanjaro, namely 20% oxygen and 80% nitrogen.

So is there lack of oxygen on Kilimanjaro? Yes, but not because oxygen makes up less volume percentage. The reason is that the air is thinner due to low air pressure. So when you hear that there is a lack of oxygen on Kilimanjaro, that’s not correct because oxygen still makes up 20% of the air. The problem is the lack of air pressure. And the pressure drops by about tenth for every one thousand meters of altitude meaning that at the top of Kilimanjaro the air pressure is approximately 40% of that found at sea level.

This means that every time you breathe on top of Kilimanjaro you take in only about half as much air, and thus oxygen, as you would if you took the same breath on the beach.

The oxygen and our body

The lack of oxygen can be detrimental to your health because all of your vital organs need it, as well as your muscles. They get their oxygen via red blood cells, which are loaded with oxygen in your lungs and then pumped around the body by the heart. Problems arise when that most vital of organs, the brain, isn’t getting enough oxygen and malfunctions. And it can also have fatal consequences. But your body is adaptable and can adjust to the lower levels of oxygen that you breathe in high altitude. In fact, you will breathe deeper and faster, your blood will thicken and your body starts to produce more red blood cells. As a result, your important organs will get the same level of oxygen as before.

But your body needs to adjust to these changes. Although you start to breath deep and fast as soon as you realize the low pressure, it takes a few days for the blood to thicken. If you fail to adapt to the low pressure, then you get altitude sickness There are three levels of altitude sickness: mild, moderate and severe. On Kilimanjaro most people will get some symptoms and will fall into the mild-to-moderate categories.

Having symptoms of mild altitude sickness is not a sign that the climber should give up climbing Kilimanjaro. Indeed, most if not all symptoms will disappear if the person rests.

The same goes for moderate altitude sickness although here the climber and his symptoms should be monitored more closely to ensure that they are not getting worse. The climbers with severe altitude sickness should descend immediately.