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Asthma and High Altitude

February 16, 2023

Air Temperature and Humidity

It’s more difficult to breathe at high altitude, for everyone, not just if you have asthma. High altitude is generally considered any elevation over 5,000 feet. At this elevation the percent of oxygen in the air is the same as at lower altitudes, 21%, but the atmospheric or barometric pressure decreases, and your body has to work harder to breathe. 

It’s not the change in elevation that triggers asthma symptoms, it’s the change in air temperature and humidity. Our lungs like the air to be warm and humid. Cold, dry air is an irritant and can actually trigger asthma symptoms. The higher you go, the colder the air gets. 

Not everyone with asthma will have an issue at higher elevation. In fact, your lungs may actually enjoy the cleaner air.

Enjoying Activities at High Altitude When You Have Asthma

You can still enjoy hiking, skiing and all the activities that being out of doors in the mountains have to offer. Following are some precautions to take before you go.

  • Make sure you have good access to controller medications, and that you have available access to on-demand, quick-relieving medications like albuterol. 
  • Talk to your provider about your asthma action plan and let them know where you will be going.
  • Dress to keep your mouth and neck warm; wear a scarf, facemask or buff.
  • Stay hydrated with warm drinks; fill a thermos with hot tea.
  • Breathe through your nose as much as possible to keep warm and humid air going to your lungs.
Mother and son out doors with ski or snowboard gear
If you are feeling poorly at a high altitude, stop and rest. If you can, wait a day or two before going any higher, drink a lot of water, avoid smoking, alcohol or exercise.

“When completing any physical activity at altitude, I become much more aware of my breathing. With asthma I am not only becoming aware of my breathing, but also my quality of breath. With skiing and biking, I attempt to use rhythmic breathing to sync with the motions of my body. With my asthma. I always carry my inhaler with me. I’m also aware of my quality of breathing. If I am not able to maintain a rhythmic breathing pattern with the motions of my body, or the quality of my breath decreases, I will slow down or take a break until I can maintain both.”

Margaret, avid backcountry skier and mountain biker.
Breathless Man with asthma inhaler for relief an attack

Do I Have Asthma?

More than 25 million Americans, or about 8% of the population, have asthma. The symptoms of asthma can vary widely from one patient to the next. Signs of asthma can also look very different in children as compared to adults. For most patients with adult-onset asthma, this will be a lifelong condition, but if you take care of it well, you can live a full and active life.

Learn About Asthma

Other issues to be aware of at altitude

Something else to watch out for when traveling at high altitudes is altitude sickness. Also called acute mountain sickness, this can occur if you travel too quickly to a high altitude.

People traveling to high elevations for strenuous activity will often take time to become acclimated before embarking on a strenuous hike.

Age, gender or physical fitness do not make you more or less likely to have altitude sickness. And just because you’ve never had it, doesn’t mean you won’t get it. 

Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

Symptoms of altitude sickness usually develop between six and 24 hours. You can actually feel sick after you return from the mountains. Symptoms are similar to those of a bad hangover and include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of Appetite
  • Shortness of Breath

Bee and insect sting allergy specialist John Seyerle, MD
Medically Reviewed By: John Seyerle, MD
Reviewed on: Jan. 17, 2022

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Treating Altitude Sickness

If you are feeling poorly at a high altitude, stop and rest. If you can, wait a day or two before going any higher, drink a lot of water, avoid smoking, alcohol or exercise. If symptoms persist or are severe, move to a lower altitude immediately. See a doctor if your symptoms get worse. Severe altitude sickness can lead to life-threatening conditions that affect the brain and lungs.

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