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This site is provided for informational purposes only. The information here is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition, and should not replace the care and attention of qualified medical personnel. Use the information on these pages at your own risk, and, as with any information pertaining to health, nutrition, mental health, or fitness, consult your physician before making any changes that might affect your overall health.

Breathing in the Mountains

You never truly appreciate the ability to breathe until you can't! Breathing takes on a whole new importance at high altitude, especially if you have health problems which cause difficulties to begin with.

I have never had problems breathing as a rule, until we moved up here. And even then, it is just under certain conditions. Something about the environment up here seems to aggravate existing allergies, and bring on new ones - it may be the sage, the dust, or some other factor.

Many people who live in this region develop breathing problems after a time here. Mostly it is allergy aggravated asthma. Some people feel it is due to the high aerial spraying that is being done because of the ozone hole, but nobody knows for sure whether it is just something with the climate and environment, or just that any tendency to asthma will come out at higher altitudes when it did not at lower levels.

Usually, if you have a tendency to asthma, higher altitude can aggravate it. There are other times also when you need to be watchful for breathing problems:

  • When you are ascending into an altitude that you are not accustomed to. Go slowly, because your body takes time to adjust.
  • During exertion. Exercise demands more air, so problems will become more pronounced. If you intend to go hiking at a significantly higher altitude than you normally live at, then be prepared to slow down!
  • In extreme cold. Since temperatures in winter and at night tend to be much colder higher up, this is more of an issue than you may realize. And it is easy to get out a little way from your house or other shelter, and get into trouble fast. Cold induced asthma can come on very suddenly, and after you have been out a while - I have experienced this - and it can all but rob you of the ability to even gasp for breath. Find a way to warm the air you are breathing.
  • When pollens are high. At higher altitudes there seem to be fewer of these, but some of them are pretty pervasive when they do happen. Stay out of high pollen areas if this is a problem for you, or wear a dust mask.
  • If you have sleep apnea. If you move from a lower area to a higher one, you may need to have your breathing equipment adjusted to compensate for the lower room air pressure.
  • If you use any kind of assisted breathing equipment. Changing altitudes may necessitate adjustments to the equipment. Talk to your doctor before you make the change, or before you make a trip into a high altitude area if you or a family member are vent dependent or oxygen dependent.

Most of the time, breathing issues at high altitude are momentary. They can be corrected by reversal of whatever brought it on - slow down, move lower down, warm up, etc. They are not usually life threatening to people in good health unless you ignore warning signs that you are in trouble.

It can be rather shocking to a person who has always enjoyed good health to suddenly find themselves gasping for breath, and unable to get enough air. If you have never felt this feeling, you cannot possibly understand how utterly terrifying it is, or how important it is to recognize when it is getting hard to breathe, and to react quickly so it does not get extremely bad. It is essential that you identify the cause quickly, and remove the cause if at all possible.

Most people who move up to 6000 ft will not notice much of a difference, other than a greater than usual tendency to fatigue during the first week or two. Higher up though, can produce a more noticeable effect.

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High Altitude Library

Editorial Comments throughout this site written by Laura Wheeler (with occasional sarcastic remarks by her son, David). Laura is a 10 year resident of Medicine Bow, Wyoming, where the altitude is greater than the population. Medicine Bow is at 6200+ ft above sea level, and boasts a total of 297 residents from the last census. Laura is an experienced technical, health and family writer.

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