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Does Altitude Affect Your Asthma?

By David Silva

If you have asthma and you enjoy outside activities that take you to higher elevations or much, much higher, the possible danger has certainly crossed your mind. Well, the news isn't all bad, though it is cautionary.

Asthma is a chronic lung condition, characterized by a difficulty with breathing. People with asthma have extra sensitive or hyper-responsive airways. During an asthma attack, their airways become irritated and react by narrowing and constructing, causing increased resistance to airflow, and obstructing the flow of the air passages to and from the lungs.

There's no question, as an asthma sufferer you're more likely to be affected by altitude sickness than if you didn't have the disease. However, if you're fit and healthy, with asthma that's well controlled, you should have no problems coping. This is, of course, provided you ascend slowly and recognize and accept your limitations.

Altitude will generally have little effect on stable asthmatics.

If your asthma is so severe that your blood oxygen is low, then air travel can put you in danger of reducing your blood oxygen level even further. That, combined with the dry, cool conditions generally encountered at high altitudes, could trigger asthma symptoms. In addition, if your destination is a high altitude, a city such as Denver for example, and you're unaccustomed to that altitude and have little opportunity to acclimatize, you may experience heightened symptoms. As always, discuss this with your doctor ahead of time.

Now, if you're dealing with severe asthma and you've been using your bronchodilator three or more times a week over the previous year, high-altitude treks can also increase your risk of an asthma attack. As already mentioned, the dry, cool conditions generally encountered at higher altitudes tend to aggravate the disease. Climbing, in and of itself, can be a very strenuous exercise which may trigger exercise-induced asthma in some people.

Then there's your inhaler to consider. In freezing conditions, pressurized inhalers may not work properly. So before using yours, first you'll need to warm it up using the body heat from your hands.

The best thing to do is to discuss your trip with your doctor several weeks in advance of your departure. This will allow time to work out a personal asthma action plan for the trip. This might involve increasing your preventer treatment for several weeks before the trip to give your airways extra protection, or measuring peak flow while away to determine how altitude is affecting your lung function, or even simple things like ensuring that you have enough medication and backup medication.

High altitudes do not need to be avoided. Just make certain you take some basic precautions. Humid air is certainly better for keeping your airways moist. However, the effects of dry, cool air can be prevented by keeping your asthmatic condition under close control. And some asthma sufferers, particularly those whose asthma is triggered by house-dust mites may actually find their asthma improves at higher elevations, where the dust mites can't survive.

So ask your doctor about any high-altitude travelling you have upcoming, heed his advice, and enjoy your trip!

About The Author

David Silva is the webmaster of Asthma Insights, a website dedicated to the comprehensive exploration of asthma, its triggers, its symptoms and its management. Pick up a free copy of the special report, Understanding Asthma, when you sign up for their newsletter at


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