COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a type of  lung disease that makes it difficult to breathe. The condition is typically caused by long-term exposure to lung irritants, such as cigarette smoke or air pollution. People with COPD usually experience shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing.

If you have COPD and enjoy traveling, then you probably already know that high altitude can make COPD symptoms worse. At higher elevations, your body needs to work harder to take in the same amount of oxygen as it does at elevations closer to sea level. This strains your lungs and makes it harder to breathe. Breathing at higher altitudes might be especially difficult if you have COPD as well as another condition, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, or diabetes. Being exposed to high-altitude conditions for more than several days can also affect the heart and kidneys.

Depending on the severity of your COPD symptoms, you may need to supplement your breathing with oxygen at high elevations, particularly above 5,000 feet.. This can help prevent oxygen deficiency.

The standard air pressure on commercial air flights is equivalent to 5,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. If you need to bring supplemental oxygen onboard, you will need to make arrangements with the airline before your flight.

What Is High Altitude?

The air at higher altitudes is colder, less dense, and contains fewer oxygen molecules. This means that you need to take more breaths in order to get the same amount of oxygen as you would at lower altitudes. The higher the elevation, the more difficult breathing becomes.

  • high altitude: 4,921 feet to 11,483 feet / 1,500 meters to 3,500 meters
  • very high altitude: 11,483 feet to 18,045 feet / 3,500 meters to 5,500 meters
  • extreme altitude: greater than 18,045 feet or 5,500 meters

Altitude Sickness

Acute mountain sickness, also known as altitude sickness, can develop during the adjustment to the changes in air quality at higher elevations. It most often occurs at about 8,000 feet, or 2,400 meters, above sea level.

Altitude sickness can affect people without COPD, but it may be more severe in people who do have COPD or some other type of lung condition. People who are physically exerting themselves are also more likely to experience altitude sickness.

Altitude sickness can be mild to severe. Its early symptoms can include:

  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • lightheadedness
  • headache
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • rapid pulse or heartbeat

When people with altitude sickness stay at higher elevations, the symptoms can become more severe and further affect the lungs, heart, and nervous system. When this occurs, symptoms may include:

  • confusion
  • congestion
  • coughing
  • chest tightness
  • decreased consciousness
  • paleness or skin discoloration due to the lack of oxygen

Without supplemental oxygen, altitude sickness can lead to dangerous conditions, such as high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) or high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). HACE may occur when too much fluid builds up in the lungs, while HAPE can develop due to fluid buildup or swelling in the brain. 

People with COPD should always bring supplemental oxygen with them during long airplane flights and trips to the mountains. This will help prevent altitude sickness from developing and keep COPD symptoms from becoming more severe.   

Talk With Your Doctor

Before you travel, it’s important to meet with your doctor to discuss how your trip may impact your COPD symptoms. Your doctor can further explain altitude sickness, how it might affect your breathing, and how you can be better prepared. They may tell you to take additional medications or to bring supplemental oxygen with you during your travels.

If you are concerned by how your COPD symptoms could become aggravated by high-altitude conditions, ask your doctor to perform a high altitude hypoxia measurement. This test will evaluate your breathing at oxygen levels that are simulated to resemble those at higher elevations.

Relocating to High-Altitude Areas

In general, it’s best for people with COPD to live in cities or towns that are closer to sea level. The air becomes thinner at high altitudes, making it more difficult to breathe. This is especially true for people with COPD. They need to try harder to get enough air into their lungs, which can strain the lungs and lead to other health conditions over time.

Doctors often advise against relocating to high-altitude areas. It often means a reduced quality of life for people with COPD. However, the effects of high altitude on COPD symptoms can vary from person to person. You should meet with your doctor if you’re considering permanently relocating to a city or town at a higher elevation. You and your doctor can discuss the risks of such a move and the impact it may have on your COPD symptoms.