High Altitude Living – It Can Take Your Breath Away
Living at high altitude has its advantages – beautiful scenery, majestic mountains, clean air and abundant recreation opportunities. But the thin air (with less oxygen) can also be tough on your system, particularly if you’re not used to it. Two examples of high altitude health concerns include lung function and sleep disorders.
Altitude exposure may have significant effects on sleep. The most prominent effects are frequent periods of apnea (a temporary pause in breathing) and fragmented sleep. These effects are very common. And those who currently suffer with sleep disorders may experience abnormally low levels of oxygen and as a result, experience higher severity of symptoms.
Health issues resulting from improper sleep can include heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. Many are unaware, undiagnosed or unconcerned about the serious health consequences. Fortunately, most sleep disorders are readily treatable once they are diagnosed.
While many are not aware that they have a sleep disorder until a loved one notices a problem, symptoms may include:
- Fatigue, lack of motivation and daytime sleepiness
- Loud snoring or gasping for air while sleeping
- Pauses in breathing or racing heartbeat during the night
- Restless sleeping
- Morning headaches
- Frequent awakenings
Living at high altitude can make normal breathing more difficult. For those with breathing or lung issues, chances are you already know that air quality conditions at higher elevations can make breathing very challenging. Your body literally needs to work harder to take in the same amount of oxygen as it does closer to sea level.
Breathing at higher altitudes, especially 5,000 ft and above, might be especially difficult if you have COPD or other lung related diseases. A Pulmonary Function Test can be used to help diagnose and treat patients with asthma, COPD, cystic fibrosis and other lung diseases. PFTs can determine what type of lung disease someone has, how the disease is changing over time and how they are responding to treatments. For those without any known lung concerns living at high altitude, a PFT can be a helpful tool to give you a baseline of how your lungs are functioning at the altitude where you live.
Visiting at High Altitude – It doesn’t have to be breathless
Traveling to high altitude has its advantages – beautiful scenery, majestic mountains, clean air and abundant recreation opportunities. But the thin air (with less oxygen) can also be tough on your system, particularly if you’re not used to it. When traveling to or moving to high mountain areas, our bodies initially develop inefficient physiological responses. There is an increase in breathing and heart rate, which can double, even while resting. The rise in pulse rate and blood pressure is due to our hearts pumping harder to get more oxygen to our cells. These are stressful changes, especially for people with weak hearts. How we experience altitude depends on duration of acclimatization, exercise intensity, age and genetic factors.
In a healthy person, clinically significant changes in the body’s physiological responses to altitude are difficult to observe at elevations lower than this. However, a significant change in atmospheric pressure begins at 8,000 feet and people can experience the effects of altitude immediately. For instance, Woodland Park is 8,500 feet with other areas of the region reaching nearly 10,000 feet. For anyone traveling from sea level for example, the change in altitude could result in shortness of breath, muscle fatigue, and the onset of dehydration arising sooner. These physiological responses to altitude increase the demand on the body.
What are the most common high altitude illness symptoms?
The most common problem is acute mountain sickness, which can start within several hours of arrival at altitude. Symptoms of AMS include headache, nausea, insomnia, fatigue and lethargy. Symptoms will usually improve within several days with rest and hydration. People should consult a physician immediately if they experience extreme shortness of breath, a wet gurgling cough, chest pain or any symptoms of confusion or altered mental status, as these can be indications of the life-threatening conditions of HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema) or HACE (high altitude cerebral edema). Occasionally people can develop chronic altitude sickness which usually presents with persistent shortness of breath or chest pain. If you experience these symptoms you should seek medical care.
Altitude can also exacerbate the symptoms of heart disease. Due to the low oxygen, oxygen pressure, humidity and temperature, symptoms that may lead to heart problems and ailments can appear more quickly at high altitude. These symptoms include irregular heartbeats and an irregular shortness of breath. It is advised that individuals with unstable cardiac disease should seek medical counsel prior to exercise at high altitude.
The following are a few tips to consider while at moderate and high altitude:
- Avoid overexertion by adjusting your pace
- Stay hydrated to help the body acclimatize. Minimize your alcohol intake
- Decreasing sodium intake
- Avoid going too high too quickly
Keeping your heart healthy at altitude is no different from at sea level; exercise regularly, avoid smoking, keep your body weight and cholesterol in check, and monitor blood pressure. Individuals with known cardiovascular disease planning to ascend to high altitude or exercise at elevation are advised to consult their physician.
Other considerations when traveling to altitude
- Pack for abundant sunshine – With less humidity at altitude, the sky really is bluer in Colorado. But there is 25 percent less protection from the sun, so sunscreen is a must. Also bring hats, sunglasses and lip balm, even in winter.
- Dress in layers – Always pay close attention to the weather and use this information to pack and dress appropriately. Often it can feel much warmer than the actual temperature during the daytime. And, it can become very chilly after sundown, particularly in the spring and fall. It is always best to dress in layers.