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.
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.
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!!
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
If you notice these 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 buff 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
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 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
We hope this article on the Khumbu cough helps you prepare for and avoid the nasty hack that is associated with high altitude adventures. Any questions? Leave a comment below!
References: (1) High Altitude Medicine