Nepal in detail

Health & insurance

Kathmandu has the best health facilities in the country, but standards at clinics and hospitals decline the further you get from the capital. In mountainous areas, there may be no health facilities at all. Trekkers who become unwell in the mountains are generally evacuated to Kathmandu, or overseas in the event of something really serious. Always take out travel insurance to cover the costs of hospital treatment and emergency evacuations.

Many of the most popular areas for visitors are remote and inaccessible, so you should read up on the possible health risks. While trekking, it makes sense to carry an emergency medical kit so that you can treat any symptoms until you reach medical care.

Warning

Self-diagnosis and treatment can be risky, so you should seek medical help if you become ill. Although drug dosages appear in this text, they’re for emergency treatment only. Correct diagnosis is vital.

Before You Go

Health Insurance

Considering the terrain, potential health risks and high cost of medical evacuation, it is unwise to travel to Nepal without adequate health insurance.

Medical Checklist

Following is a list of items you should consider including in your medical kit – consult your pharmacist for brands available in your country.

  • aspirin or paracetamol (acetaminophen in the USA) for pain or fever
  • anti-inflammatory (ibuprofen) for muscle and joint pain, headache and fever
  • antibiotics, particularly if travelling off the beaten track; in Nepal, antibiotics are sold without prescription, which has led to widespread resistance to some common antibiotics
  • ondansetron (Zofran) for relief of severe nausea
  • rehydration mixture to prevent dehydration during bouts of diarrhoea; particularly important when travelling with children
  • antihistamine for allergies, eg hay fever; for skin conditions, carry hydrocortisone 1% cream
  • cold and flu tablets, throat lozenges and nasal decongestant
  • antifungal cream such as clotrimazole 1% for fungal skin infections and thrush
  • antiseptic (such as povidone-iodine) for cuts and grazes
  • bandages, crêpe wraps, Band-Aids (plasters) and other wound dressings
  • water purification tablets
  • scissors, tweezers and an electric thermometer (mercury thermometers are prohibited by airlines)
  • sterile kit in case you need injections; discuss with your doctor
  • motion-sickness tablets, such as Dramamine, for long bus rides
  • Diamox (Acetazolmide) tablets if trekking above 3500m

Other Preparations

Visiting Nepal may take you to some very remote areas, so it makes sense to visit the doctor before you travel for a general check-up.

  • If you have any pre-existing medical conditions, bring any medication you need from home.
  • Ask your physician to give you a written description of your condition and your medications with their generic names in case you have to visit a doctor in Nepal.
  • It pays to get a dental check-up well before embarking on a trek. One of our previous authors cracked a molar on a particularly tough piece of dried beef while on a research trek and had to walk for five days to reach a dentist who performed an emergency root canal operation without anaesthetic! Be warned.
  • Contact-lens wearers should bring plenty of solution and take extra care with hygiene to avoid eye infections.
  • Carry backup prescription glasses and sunglasses in case you can’t wear your lenses at some point.

Websites

Medex offers a free download of the useful booklet Travel at High Altitude (http://medex.org.uk/medex_book/about_book.php), aimed at laypeople and full of good advice for staying healthy in the mountains. A Nepali translation of the booklet is also available on the website.

International Organisations

The following international organisations provide information on health issues that are pertinent to Nepal.

  • Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (www.cdc.gov)
  • Fit for Travel (www.fitfortravel.scot.nhs.uk)
  • International Society for Mountain Medicine (www.ismm.org)
  • MASTA (www.masta-travel-health.com)
  • Medex (www.medex.org.uk)

Further Reading

Travel with Children from Lonely Planet includes advice on travel health for younger children. A useful health-care overview for travel in remote areas is David Werner’s Where There Is No Doctor; get the 2015 update.

Specific titles covering trekking and health:

  • Medicine for Mountaineering & Other Wilderness Activities (James A Wilkerson) covers many medical problems typically encountered in Nepal.
  • Altitude Illness: Prevention & Treatment (Stephen Bezruchka) is essential reading for high-altitude trekking, written by an experienced Nepal trekker.
  • Pocket Wilderness First Aid & Wilderness Medicine (Dr Jim Duff and Peter Gormly) is an excellent portable companion.

In Nepal

Tap Water

Don’t drink the water in Nepal. Ice should be avoided except in upmarket tourist-oriented restaurants. While trekking, purify your own water rather than buying purified water in polluting plastic bottles.

Water Purification

The easiest way to purify water is to boil it thoroughly. Chlorine tablets (eg Puritabs or Steritabs) kill many pathogens but are not effective against giardia and amoebic cysts. Follow the directions carefully – filter water through a cloth before adding the chemicals and be sure to wet the thread on the lid to your water bottle. Once the water is purified, vitamin C or neutralising tablets can be added to remove the chemical taste.

Chlorine is more effective against giardia and amoebic cysts when combined with phosphoric acid (eg Aquamira). Iodine can be used as effectively as chlorine, but is now discouraged by medics in the UK.

Trekking filters take out all parasites, bacteria and viruses, and make water safe to drink. However, it is very important to read the specifications so that you know exactly what the filter removes from the water.

Another option is a UV light–based treatment such as a Steripen, but water has to be clear for this to work.

Availability & Cost of Health Care

Kathmandu has several excellent clinics, including the Nepal International Clinic and CIWEC Clinic, which has a branch in Pokhara. A basic visit will cost you US$20 or so. A three-day treatment of antibiotics is less than US$3. Medical provision away from large cities is poor – if possible, travel to Kathmandu or Pokhara for treatment.

While trekking, your only option may be small, local health posts, and even these are few and far between.

In remote areas, you should carry an appropriate medical kit and be prepared to treat yourself until you can reach a health professional.

Infectious Diseases

Dengue Fever

Dengue is caused by any one of four related viruses transmitted by day-biting aedes mosquitoes. Once bitten a person will become sick within two to eight days. Symptoms include high fever, pain behind the eyes, headache, backache, joint and muscle pains, and sometimes a rash on the back, chest and abdomen. No specific treatment is available and spontaneous recovery is the rule. Body temperature returns to normal within a week, although a victim may feel tired and slightly depressed for a few weeks.

Dengue struck Nepal in a big way in 2010; a 2016 outbreak was confined mainly to Chitwan and Jhapa. Otherwise the risk is low.

Hepatitis

There are several different viruses that cause hepatitis (inflammation of the liver). The symptoms are similar in all forms of the illness and include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, feelings of weakness as well as aches and pains, followed by loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-coloured faeces, jaundiced (yellow) skin and yellowing of the whites of the eyes.

Hepatitis A and E are transmitted by contaminated drinking water and food. Hepatitis A is virtually 100% preventable by using any of the current hepatitis A vaccines. Hepatitis E causes an illness very similar to hepatitis A and there is at present no way to immunise against this virus.

Hepatitis B is only spread by blood (unsterilised needles and blood transfusions) or sexual contact. Risky situations include having a shave, tattoo or body piercing with contaminated equipment.

HIV & AIDS

HIV and AIDS are growing problems in Nepal, with an estimated 75,000 Nepalis infected with the virus, so insist on brand-new disposable needles and syringes for injections.

Blood used for transfusions is usually screened for HIV/AIDS. Try to avoid a blood transfusion unless it seems certain you will die without it.

Malaria

Antimalarial tablets are only recommended if you will be spending long periods in the Terai, particularly during the monsoon. There is no risk in Kathmandu or Pokhara, for short visits to Chitwan, or on typical Himalayan trekking routes.

It makes sense to take measures to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes, as dengue fever, another mosquito-borne illness, has been sporadically documented in the lowlands. Use insect repellent if travelling to the Terai, particularly if staying overnight in jungle areas or in cheap hotels.

Plug-in mosquito killers are more effective than combustible mosquito coils, which can cause respiratory problems.

Rabies

The rabies virus causes a severe brain infection that is almost always fatal. Feral dogs and monkeys are the main carriers of the disease in Nepal.

Rabies is different from other infectious diseases in that a person can be immunised after having been exposed. Human rabies immune globulin (HRIG) is stocked at the CIWEC clinic and the Nepal International Clinic in Kathmandu.

In addition to the HRIG, five injections of rabies vaccine are needed over a one-month period. Travellers who have taken a preimmunisation series only need two rabies shots, three days apart, if they are bitten by a possibly rabid animal.

If you receive a bite or a scratch from an animal in Nepal, wash the wound with soap and water, then a disinfectant, such as povidone-iodine, then seek rabies immunisations. Considering the risk, it makes sense to keep your distance from animals in Nepal, particularly street dogs, cats and monkeys.

Respiratory Infections

Upper respiratory tract infections (such as the common cold) are common ailments in Nepal, especially in polluted Kathmandu. Respiratory infections are aggravated by high altitude, cold weather, pollution, smoking and overcrowded conditions, which increase the opportunities for infection.

Most upper respiratory tract infections go away without treatment, but any infection can lead to complications such as bronchitis, ear infections and pneumonia, which may need to be treated with antibiotics.

Fever

If you have a sustained fever (over 38°C/100.4°F) for more than two days while trekking and you cannot get to a doctor, an emergency treatment is a course of the broad-spectrum antibiotic azithromycin (500mg twice a day for seven days), but you should seek professional medical help as soon as possible.

Traveller’s Diarrhoea

Even veteran travellers to South Asia seem to come down with the trots in Nepal. It’s just one of those things. The main cause of infection is contaminated water and food, due to low standards of hygiene. However, diarrhoea is usually self-limiting and most people recover within a few days.

Dehydration is the main danger with diarrhoea, particularly in children, pregnant women or the elderly. Soda water, weak black tea with a little sugar, or soft drinks allowed to go flat and half-diluted with clean water will help you replace lost liquids.

In severe cases, take oral rehydration salts made up with boiled or purified water. In an emergency you can make up a solution of six teaspoons of sugar and half a teaspoon of salt to a litre of boiled or bottled water. Stick to a bland diet as you recover.

Loperamide (Imodium) or diphenoxylate (Lomotil) can be used to bring temporary relief from the symptoms, but they do not cure the problem.

In the case of diarrhoea with blood or mucus (dysentery), any diarrhoea with fever, profuse watery diarrhoea and persistent diarrhoea not improving after 48 hours, you should visit a doctor. If you cannot reach a doctor, the recommended treatment is azithromycin 500mg once a day for one to three days.

These drugs can also be used in children and pregnant women. In children azithromycin is given in a dose of 10mg per kilogram of body weight per day (as a single dose each day for three days).

Environmental Hazards

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)

Above 2500m, the concentration of oxygen in the air you breathe starts to drop off markedly, reducing the amount of oxygen that reaches your brain and other organs. Decreasing air pressure at altitude has the additional effect of causing liquid to leak from the capillaries into the lungs and brain, which can be fatal. The human body has the ability to adjust to the changes in pressure and oxygen concentration as you gain altitude, but this is a gradual process.

The health conditions caused by the effects of altitude are known collectively as altitude sickness or acute mountain sickness (AMS). If allowed to develop unchecked, AMS can lead to coma and death. However, you can avoid this potentially deadly condition by limiting your rate of ascent, which will allow your body to adjust to the altitude. There is also a 100% effective treatment if you do experience serious symptoms: descend immediately.

If you go trekking, it is important to read up on the causes, effects and treatment of altitude sickness before you start walking. Attend one of the free lectures on altitude sickness given by the Himalayan Rescue Association in Kathmandu.

The onset of symptoms of AMS is usually gradual, so there is time to adjust your trekking schedule or retreat off the mountain if you start to feel unwell. Most people who suffer severe effects of AMS have ignored obvious warning signs.

Heat Stroke & Hypothermia

Sometimes the greatest dangers are the most obvious – and most overlooked. The extreme summer heat in the Terai, and the extreme winter cold in the Himalaya, mean that heat stroke and hypothermia are obvious risks in Nepal.

Heat stroke occurs when your body temperature rises above 40°C, and requires emergency treatment. If left untreated, it can quickly damage your brain, heart, kidneys and muscles, and even result in death. As you might expect, prevention is a matter of keeping cool, such as avoiding over-exerting yourself in direct sunlight.

Hypothermia is essentially the opposite. It occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it, causing a dangerously low body temperature (below 35°C). Prevention is a matter of keeping warm, such as wearing proper clothing. A number of trekkers died from hypothermia during the 2014 Thorung La disaster because they were not dressed for the extreme conditions.

Leeches

Is there anything more disgusting than a leech? Probably not, but while high on the gross index, leeches won't do you much in the way of harm.

Leeches are found in wet vegetation, where they wait to climb aboard any passing animal. It is difficult to feel them biting, and if left alone, they can grow from a centimetre or so to several centimetres in length, gorged with blood. However, they are not the cause of disease in themselves. To remove a leech, slide a fingernail or sharp object under the sucker that the leech is using to attach to your skin; apply an antiseptic to prevent infection of the wound. To prevent leeches from biting, try tucking your pant legs into your shoes, or wear gaiters.

Leeches are a significant problem in Terai national parks, particularly during the wetter months.

Sunburn, Chapped Lips & Cold Sores

Trekking at high altitude means you are more exposed to intense sunlight than normal. A good pair of sunglasses and diligent use of sunscreen makes all the difference in the world. Nevertheless loads of people get sunburned while trekking. Another problem is chapped lips and cold sores. Painful chapping is common in cold, dry mountain air, and this often brings outbreaks of cold sores for those carrying the virus. Use lip balm, and if you suffer from cold sores, bring Zovirax or a similar acyclovir cream.

Emergency Treatments for Trekking

While trekking it may be impossible to reach medical treatment, so consider carrying the following drugs for emergencies (the concentrations in which these drugs are sold in Nepal are noted next to the drug):

  • azithromycin 250mg – a broad-spectrum antibiotic, useful for traveller’s diarrhoea; take the equivalent of 500mg per day for three consecutive days.
  • tinidazole 500mg – the recommended treatment for giardiasis is four 500mg pills all at once for two days.