Asthmatics – don’t suffer at altitude!

Copyright 2006 David Drinkall

Some kinds of exercise cause problems for asthmatics. Activities like climbing and skiing have an additional problem. Not only are there the exercise problems, but the altitude itself can cause an additional challenge of its own.

It is possible that people with asthma are more likely to be affected by altitude sickness. But what is altitude sickness? And why should asthma sufferers be more likely to suffer from it?

Simply put, people who live at lower altitudes can become ill when they visit high areas. They can feel light-headed, suffer from headache, suffer from fatigue, insomnia and palpitations, or experience lack of appetite, diarrhoea and abdominal pain.

One of the most acute collections of symptoms is around breathing difficulties; liquid accumulates in the lungs.

Will altitude affect your asthma?

The conditions are high altitudes are often dry and cold, and these conditions tend to worsen or trigger asthma. If your asthma is triggered by cold conditions, you might find that high altitudes are a problem, as the air temperature usually decreases at higher altitudes.

Bear in mid, though, that fit, healthy people with well-controlled asthma should have no problems coping with high altitudes, provided that they go up slowly. Recognise and accept your limitations. Make sure you have all your medicines with you. You may need to adjust your dose, and to plan your intake before, through and after your activity.

But be careful. In freezing conditions, pressurized inhalers may not work properly. They should be warmed (e.g. in the hands) before use.

Take it easy

Climbing and skiing can be very strenuous exercise and may trigger exercise-induced asthma in some people.

Some kinds of asthma may be eased

If your asthma is triggered by house-dust mites, you may even find that your asthma improves. Surprised? Why should this be? Simply because the house-dust mite cannot survive at altitudes higher than ‘the snow line’.

Take time to acclimatize

People with asthma who fly directly into a place that is at high altitude will not have time to acclimatize and may experience problems. So talk to your doctor so that the altitude if you’re flying to a high-altitude destination several weeks before you leave. This will allow you time to work out a personal asthma action plan for the trip.

Your plan might involve increasing your preventer treatment for several weeks before the trip to give the 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.

Take care when exercising

Make sure you feel right at any particular altitude before going higher. If you start feeling breathless, slow down. Drink plenty of water, and eat small snacks often to prevent altitude sickness. And, do tell your fellow climbers and skiers that you’re asthmatic.

Remember to take everything in stages, talk to your doctor and keep your medicines to hand, and you should have a better time this winter.