Climber’s White Lung

Editor’s Note: High-Clip is following the format of WebMD articles in an effort to distill an experience commonly referred to as “climber’s white lung” or CWL (not to be confused with white lung/white lung cancer). This format is used to present this experience in an easily readable manner.

What is CWL?

CWL is when one’s lungs is lined with climbing chalk. Although it is not an actual condition like black lung or white lung, CWL can still cause some discomfort and lead to fits of coughing.

CWL Symptoms 

With CWL, a person may have symptoms including:

  • Excessive coughing
  • Dry, scratchy throat
  • Chalk about the nose or mouth
  • Strong chalk smell
  • Incessant promising that they will never use chalk again

CWL Causes

Generally, CWL is accidentally caused by the climber it affects. Most often, they drop their chalk bag or close it too fast, causing the chalk near the top of the bag to jump into the air and into the climber’s lungs. Sometimes, however, this can affect other nearby climbers, causing everyone close to the white cloud to scatter away before developing this condition. Lastly, this CWL can occur when climbers try to send too hard. Holds can have loads of chalk on them, and there are times when a climber’s nose/mouth is right above a hold, so when they take a deep breath to make the next move, they get a lung full of chalk instead of air.

CWL Diagnosis

CWL has no real definition, so if you feel like you inhaled a bit too much chalk, you can diagnose yourself with CWL. Generally any discomfort followed by breathing in chalk is attributed to CWL.

CWL Treatment

Anecdotally, some fresh air and some water will do the trick. Most of the treatment for CWL is preventative: keep a healthy distance from chalk bags (yours or others’), consider using a chalk ball, breathe slowly on the wall, etc.

CWL Complications

Rock climbing is a dangerous sport. People can develop minor to serious (even fatal) injuries through accidents, negligence, or overuse. While most people recover within seconds to minutes from CWL, there’s a chance in the future scientists will take a look into climbers’ lungs and find that CWL is actually real and causes problems for people. TBD! Stay safe out there!


11 Replies to “Climber’s White Lung”

  1. The obvious solution here is to wear an N95 mask at all times when climbing or when within 6 feet of yours or anyone else’s chalk bag. Climbers who use absurdly excessive amounts of chalk (and you know who you are!) are advised to use a full face, independent air supply, respirator when climbing. This will protect you from CWL. It will not, of course, protect you from the searing scorn aimed at you from nearby climbers. And communication with you belayer might be a bit vague: MAULING! (falling) What? MAULING! What? But what price respiratory safety? Eh?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Chalk is used to help create friction on our hands as well as absorb sweaty palms…added bonus is that it is a good distraction while climbing just before something really hard is about to go down.


  2. Thank you for sharing. I wasn’t even aware of this. Quite something for climbers to have a lifetime of precautions to keep safe on their climbing routes and to have something like White Lung sneak up on you.
    At64, I don’t do much climbing these days, just the odd indoor rock wall.
    I’ve never tried it, so I don’t know. But I am wondering about the liquid chalk used by weightlifters but also, I understand could be used by climbers. It would have its drawbacks. On climbs there is not always the option of 2 hands available to apply it out of the bottle. I’m sure with it also having alcohol (which does evaporate) as the liquid base, it would be quite painful to apply on hands that are cut and scraped up from previous climbs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For sure! Liquid chalk can work, but as you said on the wall it can get tricky. Personally I don’t like the texture as much, but some people like it for climbing!

      Liked by 1 person

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