High Altitudes and Respiratory Diseases: What to Expect and How to Cope

Living with a respiratory disease can make normal activities and hobbies difficult. Traveling, however, can be particularly challenging to do when you suffer from a chronic respiratory condition.

Traveling brings up concerns about medication, supplemental oxygen, access to proper medical care, and more. But if you're traveling to a higher elevation than you are accustomed to, then you have to consider the effects of high altitude as well.



The thin air at high elevations can cause a variety of respiratory symptoms in healthy people and is particularly troublesome for people who suffer from COPD or another respiratory illness. Short periods of exposure to the thin air found at high altitudes can cause shortness of breath and a condition known as altitude sickness. Long-term exposure can lead to even more serious and potentially life-threatening complications.

If you live at high altitude or plan to travel to high elevations, it's important to understand how the thin air can affect your condition over time. If you're not accustomed to high altitudes, you need to know what to expect so you can take the proper precautions before traveling to areas where it may be a concern.

In this post we're going to help you do just that by telling you everything you need to know about respiratory diseases and high altitudes. We'll explain how high altitudes affect your respiratory illness, how to prevent negative symptoms, and what kinds of tools and medications can reduce your chances of adverse effects.

How High Altitudes Affect Your Body

Man standing on mountain peak looking off.

High-altitude regions like the mountains host some of the most beautiful landscapes and alluring vacation spots. But the effects of high altitude in these areas can be troublesome, especially if you are living with a chronic respiratory disease.

The air at higher elevations is much thinner than the air at sea level and contains significantly less oxygen. Because of this, your lungs have to work extra hard to absorb enough oxygen to meet your body's needs.

Your lungs compensate for the lack of oxygen at high altitudes by increasing your breathing rate, and your cardiovascular system compensates by increasing your blood pressure and heart rate. This can cause you to feel extra breathless and fatigued.

These changes are often harmless, but for some people high altitudes cause a lot of discomfort. Some people are more sensitive to changes in elevation than others and are more prone to experience a variety of symptoms associated with altitude sickness.


Altitude Sickness


Elderly woman holding her hand against her head.

Altitude sickness occurs when your body can't get enough oxygen because of the thin, oxygen-poor air at high elevations. When this happens, your blood oxygen saturation drops and your body kicks into high gear to respond.

Some of the symptoms of altitude sickness are caused by your body's attempt to make up for the lack of oxygen, while other symptoms are a result of hypoxia. Anyone can succumb to altitude sickness, but those with respiratory diseases are especially at risk.

Here are some of the common symptoms of altitude sickness to watch out for:

  • Headache
  • Light headedness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Decreased appetite
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Reduced endurance and fatigue

There is another type of altitude sickness called high-altitude pulmonary edema, which occurs when fluid builds up in your lungs as a result of traveling to high elevations. This is a very rare condition, but it can be life-threatening if not treated quickly.

Symptoms of pulmonary edema include worsened shortness of breath, a wet cough, frothy sputum, and heart palpitations. If you experience these symptoms after traveling to a high altitude, seek emergency medical attention immediately.

How High Altitudes Affect People with Respiratory Diseases


Illustration of lungs and bronchial tubes.

Scientists who research the effects of elevation on COPD have found that high altitudes tend to make COPD symptoms worse.

High altitudes require you to breathe faster, breathe deeper, and use more energy to breathe. If the air is very oxygen poor, it can be impossible to get enough oxygen and cause your blood oxygen levels to drop, leading to hypoxia.

Thus it should come as no surprise that people with respiratory diseases have to be extra cautious in the thin air at high elevations. After all, traveling to high altitudes causes breathlessness and other respiratory symptoms often in healthy adults, so it stands to reason that people with reduced lung function would struggle even more.

The extra strain that the thin air puts on your lungs makes it harder to breathe and can make symptoms that you already have worse. High altitudes also affect your endurance; you might notice that you feel fatigued and short of breath easily when doing any kind of physical activity at high elevations.

High altitudes are not all bad for your lungs, however. In fact, if you suffer from asthma or allergies, spending time at a high altitude might actually improve some of your symptoms.

That's because there's less less pollen and other allergens in the air at high altitudes. So, while spending time in high altitudes might make your COPD symptoms worse, it might also soothe other symptoms of asthma and allergies if you suffer from them as well.

Factors to Consider Before Traveling to High Altitudes


Aerial view of a rain forest and river.

High altitudes affect every individual differently, but there certain factors that put you more or less at risk of suffering ill effects. If you're planning to travel to a higher elevation, make sure you take the following factors into consideration before you go:

The Severity of Your Disease

If your respiratory disease is mild, you might only notice minimal negative effects at high elevations. But if your disease is severe, you should be prepared for the possibility that you will experience greatly worsened symptoms or exacerbations because of the thin air.

That's why it's important to consult with your doctor before you travel, especially if you are heading to a climate or an elevation that's significantly different from what you are used to. Your doctor will be able to warn you about any potential problems and help you get any medications or treatments you might need before you go.

The Difference in Elevation


View of earth from space.

How much the altitude affects you depends on what elevation your body is already accustomed to. If you already live at a higher altitude, then traveling to the mountains will be easier than it would be for someone who lives at sea level.

The relative difference in altitude between where you live and where you are traveling matters, and you can calculate it by subtracting your home city's elevation from the elevation of your travel destination. To do this yourself, you can visit elevationmap.net to find the elevation of cities all across the world using their handy search tool.

Living at High Altitudes


Snowy valley with small hut.

If you live at a high elevation, then you have probably already adjusted to the acute effects of the high altitude. Our bodies adapt to handle the thin air fairly quickly, and it usually only takes a couple weeks at most to shake off the negative symptoms.

There are two main changes that happen in your body over time that helps it acclimate to oxygen-poor high altitudes. First, your lungs adapt by enlarging to increase their oxygen absorption abilities, making it easier to breathe. Second, your circulatory system adapts by making extra blood vessels and red blood cells in order to more efficiently transport oxygen to all the different parts of your body.

However, even after your body adapts, the thin air can still negatively affect your respiratory disease in the long term. It makes it more difficult to manage respiratory symptoms like breathlessness and wheezing and can lead to more serious complications over time.

The oxygen-poor air at high elevations force your lungs to work much harder to get enough oxygen than they would have to at sea level. The higher the altitude, the more the effect worsens, which is why most doctors recommend that people with chronic respiratory diseases live at lower altitudes if possible.

If you do choose to live at a high altitude, it's important to get your blood oxygen levels tested regularly and have an effective treatment plan to prevent your blood oxygen saturation from falling too low. If you aren't extra careful to make sure you are getting enough oxygen every day, you could suffer from hypoxia which leads to pulmonary hypertension, heart failure, and death.

Make sure to talk to your doctor if your respiratory symptoms are severe or you are concerned about the long-term effects that living at a high altitude could have on your lungs. Your doctor can help you better understand the risks and help you determine whether or not moving to a lower altitude would be good for your health.

Tips for Managing High Altitudes


Valley with snow on the ground.

It's important to be knowledgeable and prepared before traveling to high altitudes, especially if you have reduced lung function because of a respiratory illness. That means knowing the risks of high elevations and understanding how to minimize those risks as well.

In this next section we'll discuss what you can do to minimize your chances of complications and discomfort when spending time at high altitudes. We'll tell you what you should bring, what you should watch out for, and how you can help your body and lungs adjust to the thinner air.

Take it Slow

Whenever you travel to a high altitude that you're not used to, it's important to give your body time to adjust. Even healthy adults have to take it easy while their bodies acclimate to the thinner air, so you should be doubly cautious if you suffer from a chronic respiratory illness.

First, don't plan anything more than light activity for the first few days you spend at a high elevation. You can expect to have much less physical endurance than you typically have, so don't plan long hikes, aerobic exercise, or any kind of strenuous activity until after you've had time to adjust.

It takes most people at least several days to adjust completely to the high altitude, but it can take up to a week or two for some. The higher the elevation that you're traveling to is compared to the altitude you're accustomed to, the longer it will probably take you to adjust. Make sure you plan accordingly.

Drink Plenty of Water


Full bottle of water with a blue cap.

High altitudes cause you to lose water and get dehydrated more easily. Dehydration is a main contributor to symptoms of altitude sickness, and drinking plenty of water is one of the best ways to prevent it.

That means you'll have to remember to drink extra water when you travel to higher elevations if you don't want to feel breathless and fatigued. If you go on any hikes or excursions, make sure to bring an extra water bottle or two along with you.

Avoid or Limit Alcohol

For many people it's only natural to celebrate with alcohol while traveling or enjoying a well-earned vacation. However, if you're traveling to a high elevation, you should be very cautious about how much you drink.

Alcohol's effects tend to be stronger at high altitudes and can make altitude sickness even worse. You might also find that it takes less alcohol to feel tipsy or that you experience worse dehydration or hangovers when you drink.

It's best to avoid drinking any alcohol until after your body has adjusted to the high elevation. If you do choose to drink, take it slow, and remember that it will take less alcohol than usual for you to feel its effects.

Regardless of elevation, alcohol can still cause your throat to relax at night when you sleep, making it more difficult to breathe. To keep this from happening, take care not to drink alcohol late in the evening or in the three to four hours before you go to sleep.

Tools For Managing High Altitudes

If you suffer from a chronic respiratory disease, you should expect to have extra breathing difficulties when you travel to higher altitudes. It's important to go prepared with all the tools and medications you might need to manage your symptoms in the oxygen-poor air.

Supplemental Oxygen



Low oxygen levels at high elevations make it difficult for people with reduced lung function to breathe in enough oxygen to meet their bodies' needs. You might find that you need to use extra supplemental oxygen when you travel to higher altitudes, even if you haven't needed it before.

If you currently require supplemental oxygen therapy, you'll need to be extra cautious when you travel to a higher altitude. Make sure you have a large enough supply of portable oxygen to last you the whole trip, accounting for the fact that you might need more than you usually do.

It's a good idea to have your doctor do an oxygen evaluation before you travel or move to a higher elevation, even if you don't use supplemental oxygen right now. You doctor can test your lung function to determine whether or not you are likely to need supplemental oxygen or adjust your current oxygen prescription if needed.

Pulse Oximeter


Elderly woman using a pulse oximeter.

When you travel to higher altitudes, the lack of oxygen in the air can make you more prone to hypoxia, or low blood oxygen saturation. And if you're not used to managing your disease in the thin air, you might not be able to notice or prevent it from happening as easily as you could at home.

That's why you should consider bringing a personal pulse oximeter with you on your trip if you travel to a high elevation. Personal pulse oximeters are small, portable devices that you can use to read your blood oxygen levels in moments, simply by clipping the device to the end of your finger.

You might need to keep track of your pulse oximeter readings for awhile before you understand exactly how they change in relation to different activities and symptoms. You can also talk to your doctor to learn more about how to properly use your pulse oximeter, how to interpret its readings, and to calibrate your pulse oximeter if needed.

Pulse oximeters are very cheap and very useful for a variety of situations. When you travel to high altitudes, you can check it often to make sure you are getting enough oxygen and better understand how the altitude affects your COPD. A pulse oximeter is also a useful tool to use if you use supplemental oxygen therapy, because it lets you know when your blood oxygen drops too low.

All of Your Medication


Teal inhaler with the cap off.

It is especially important to keep all of your medications and treatment tools with you when you're at a high altitude. That way you'll be prepared if you start to feel chest tightness, shortness of breath, or any other respiratory symptoms.

Make sure to talk to your doctor about any extra medications you might need to help you feel comfortable at a higher elevation, especially if you know that you're sensitive to high altitudes. Even if you usually only need your inhaler occasionally or during heavy activity, you might find that you need to use your medications more often at high elevations, or during periods of lighter activity as well.


It's important to know what you're getting into before you travel to a high altitude if you have COPD. If you aren't prepared, you might find yourself too breathless to participate in any fun activities you have planned.

If you follow the tips on this list, you should be able to minimize the negative effects of high altitude and avoid getting stuck in bed with altitude sickness. If you bring all the tools and medications you need, you'll be prepared to manage any worsened COPD symptoms that you experience.

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