Asthma and Altitude
Last updated: March 2022
Have you ever taken a trip up to the mountains and noticed your asthma symptoms start to worsen? I know I have. I can remember countless trips up to the mountains when I was younger and feeling my lungs start to get more and more tight as we ascended upward into higher elevations. Altitude can sometimes effect our asthma.
While not all asthmatics may experience asthma flare ups at higher elevations, for those who do it can certainly be a frightening experience. There are also some asthmatics who find that their asthma actually improves at higher elevations. For this post I am going to explore and explain both the benefits and potential downfalls of asthma and higher elevations.
Higher altitude downfalls
There are several different aspects of higher altitude that can pose some potential issues for asthmatics. Higher elevations are generally considered anything 5,000 feet above sea level or higher. Some asthmatics who are extra sensitive to altitude might have issues even below 5,000 feet, especially those who live at or near sea level who aren't used to any altitude at all.
This does not happen due to actual oxygen percentage being lower in the higher levels of the atmosphere (the percentage of oxygen is the same 21% at all altitudes), but rather the atmospheric (or barometric) pressure decreases as the elevation increases. In return, it decreases the the partial pressure of oxygen you breathe in, hence the driving pressure for the gas exchange that occurs in the lungs, making it harder to breathe.
Higher elevations also bring colder temperatures, not just during the cold winter months. This is also often times a trigger for many asthmatics. The cold temperatures along with the very dry air can be a horrible combination. The dry, cold air can dry out the mucus membranes in the lungs, which are the body's natural defense mechanisms and in turn can cause increased allergy symptoms for those with allergic asthma. But even in asthmatics without allergies, the cold dry air can be a pretty significant trigger.
Higher altitude perks for asthma
Not every asthmatic will have an issue with higher altitudes. There are some asthmatics who will actually find their asthma gets better the higher they are in elevation. There is less air pollution which means you're breathing cleaner air, which makes the lungs very happy!
Another perk is the fact that when you get higher in elevation, there are less indoor living allergens such as dust mites which don't do well the higher you go. The vegetation also changes as the elevation increases which can mean good news to some asthmatics (depending on your allergic triggers.)
As always, if you are planning a trip to areas that have higher than you are used to when it comes to altitude make sure you are prepared, especially if it is a place you have never been to before. I definitely recommend talking with your doctor and updating your asthma action plan before taking your trip. Keep your rescue inhaler &/or nebulizer handy and be sure to take your preventative asthma medications as scheduled. Also, take note of the closest hospital/medical facility “just in case.”
How often do you experience a shortage in your asthma medication?