Khumbu Cough – The High Altitude Hacking Cough

Updated: March 15, 2023

The Khumbu cough, also referred to as the high altitude hack, is a cough caused by the low humidity and temperatures associated with high altitudes.

The Khumbu cough is named after the valley that leads up to Mount Everest in Nepal, but the cough itself is not specific to the Everest region.

Who Is At Risk Of Getting The Khumba Cough?

Research shows that nearly all people who spend lengthy times at altitude develop some degree of a cough, and hence the symptoms are quite common with high altitude mountaineers and even trekkers to destinations like Everest Base Camp.

The mechanism that triggers the Khumbu cough is not entirely understood, but it is thought that the combination of exertion, sub-zero temperatures and low humidity at high altitude results in the faster breathing of cold, dry air that literally dries out the lung lining and bronchi.

A drier membrane lining of the lungs results in an irritation that is expressed in a dry, persistent hacking cough.

What Are The Symptoms Of  The Khumba Cough?

Assuming you are climbing or trekking at high altitude, the early symptoms that you are suffering from the Khumbu cough are:

  • Dry, persistent cough
  • A running nose
  • Expulsion of a clear / white phlegm when you cough

In its most severe forms, the Khumbu cough can result in the victim coughing so hard and frequently that they tear chest muscles or even break ribs!!

How Do You Treat The Khumba Cough?

If you notice any of the above symptoms then the best treatment involves trying to keep your bronchi moist by:

  • Drinking as much water as possible, ideally warm water as the steam helps moisten the bronchi
  • Avoid over-exerting yourself as this will only increase your breathing rate and hence expose your lungs to more dry air
  • Suck on throat lozenges
  • Wear a neck warmer like this one or balaclava during the day and during the night, if you can. This keeps the throat area warm and prevents cold air and particulates from irritating your lungs
  • If the cough is really bad, then inhaling oxygen can help

Tips To Avoid The High Altitude Cough

Like all medical issues, the best treatment is prevention. Here are our top tips for preventing the Khumbu cough:

  • Our number one tip is to wear a buff during the days that you spend trekking into and out of a high altitude destination, like the Khumbu region
  • As you get higher up (over 5,000m), switch out your buff to an insulated mask or balaclava. We recommend the Neofleece face masque from Seirus Innovation
  • When spending the night at a high altitude try using a balaclava to sleep
  • This may sound silly if you are trekking or climbing at high altitude, but try to not over-exert yourself. Regulate your breathing and take regular breaks if you notice your breathing is too fast
  • To help avoid the Khumbu cough we recommend using a fleece neck warmer to cover your mouth and noise whilst trekking. If you plan to climb in the region, facemasks from Coldavenger are a great buy.

Still Have Questions?

We hope this article on the Khumbu cough helps you prepare for and avoid the nasty hack that is associated with high-altitude adventures. It is recommended to also read up on altitude sickness to be fully prepared.

Any questions? Leave a comment below!

References: (1) High Altitude Medicine


About the author 

Andrew Roux

Andrew is one of the senior writers at Mountain IQ. A native of South Africa, Andrew has hiked and climbed all over the world. His favourite destination is Nepal and his most memorable hike was to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro!

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    1. Hi Susan, I’m not sure if there is residual damage, but from my personal experience, the last time I was in the Everest region I got a really bad Khumbu cough and it took me nearly a month to shake it after returning home. Since then I don’t feel any residual damage.

    1. Hi Vicki, no, but in my experience one is much more susceptible to getting ill when you get the Khumbu cough.

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