How to adjust to high altitude?
October 20, 2007 7:11 PM   Subscribe

Will the altitude of Denver have a negative effect on my father's ability to breathe?

My father has planned a trip to Denver, and he is worried that he will have trouble breathing while he is there. He has congestive heart failure, and one way or another (it may be some of the medication), this has greatly reduced his lung function. He gets around just fine, but he has trouble breathing after walking longish distances, after climbing stairs, and on very humid days. Does the altitude have a noticeable effect on one's breathing? If so, any tips on how he might adjust to this?
posted by foxinthesnow to Science & Nature (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
altitude, probably not, smog, probably yes
posted by caddis at 7:17 PM on October 20, 2007

Yes, it does--the "thinner" atmosphere at higher elevations equals less total oxygen in the air (even though the percentage oxygen in the air is the same). Especially for someone with a history of CHF, he should really check with his doctor before traveling, as the doctor would be the one to know how well or poorly his heart failure is controlled.

(His lung function is likely reduced because his heart is failing, and fluid is chronically backed up into his lungs, making it harder for oxygen to diffuse into his body.)
posted by gramcracker at 7:23 PM on October 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have congestive heart failure (idiopathic DCM, EF around 30%, similar activity restrictions to your dad) and was in Denver 2 months ago. It sucked. I rested a lot, stayed near an air conditioner (it was summer, and the heat made everything worse) and tried not to overexert. Breathing itself wasn't that hard, it just felt like I couldn't do enough of it -- which I couldn't, because there wasn't enough oxygen in the air. My BP and heart rate actually stayed pretty stable, which was nice, but basically exhaustion was the biggy.
My lung function per se is not reduced, but the ability of my heart to pump the oxygenated blood is. This results in lower O2 sats at times, and sucking wind when I overexert.
Of course, I'm coming from sea level. If your dad lives higher up, the change to Denver may not be as dramatic for him. It certainly wasn't dangerous for me, just uncomfortable. I made sure to take elevators everywhere, parked in the handicapped spaces (for all you Denver folks, I was probably the 27 year old in 4 inch stilettos you saw parking in the HC space), and took as many breaks as I needed. He probably needs to be careful to not overschedule himself, and to watch the weather conditions to avoid being too hot or (more likely) too cold.
Mefi-mail me if you (or he) want to discuss this in more detail -- I can share more detail if you want, or give you the scoop from my grandma who has COPD and lives in Denver.
posted by katemonster at 7:45 PM on October 20, 2007

Yes, he will suffer greatly and be very uncomfortable. There is alititude meds that he can take before he comes out there but you need to be very careful. He will probably get altitude sickness to some degree but if he is not careful he could end up with HAPE or worse yet HACE. Both are a bitch and I got both of them- I ended up in the ICU in the Aspen Valley Mountain Hospital as my blood oxy went down to 52% before we figured out what was wrong with me (I thought I had a bad cold). I was in perfect health before I arrived to go skiing, and had done so for many years with no problems, but for some reason, this time around, four days into my trip I nearly went home in a body bag.

I would get him to talk to his GP and ask about the altitude meds, I think the stuff is called acetazolamide but I don't know if someone in your Dad's condition can take it. Again, I would check it out with his doc before he heads out there.

Oh, and one more thing- have him avoid eating mushrooms and taking any sleeping aids while he is out there.

More good info at this site...
posted by bkeene12 at 8:08 PM on October 20, 2007

i am in good shape and the altitude in denver/aspen really bothered me (i was coming from sea level--not sure what your dad's acclimated to). i fatigued much more easily, alcohol seemed more potent, and i actually had trouble breathing when lying down. a friend who is in wonderful shape actually blacked out while biking, and she'd already been there for a couple of days.

your dad should definitely talk to his doctor and maybe take some oxygen with him. i found that sleeping in a semi-reclined position (with a bunch of pillows under my head and upper back) helped at night.
posted by thinkingwoman at 8:33 PM on October 20, 2007

I am very healthy, and live at 3600 ft elevation. I go on work trips to Colorado, above 10,000 feet, and get short of breath with mild exertion. Of course that's higher than you are talking about, but adding the poor health, I would think it would be a problem.
posted by The Deej at 9:28 PM on October 20, 2007

Depending on how bad his CHF is, the altitude in Denver may well kill him outright. I'd suggest that he talk this trip over with his doctor.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:57 PM on October 20, 2007

Coca leaf tea is a remedy for altitude sickness.
posted by hortense at 11:36 PM on October 20, 2007

viagra works to prevent altitude sickness as well.
I kid you not.

everything else is a side effect.
posted by krautland at 3:53 AM on October 21, 2007

My grandmother, who had issues with her lungs, used to visit my family in Colorado, and she always needed to bring a portable oxygen tank. The reduced oxygen affects even people in good health; definitely talk to his doctor before going.

The portable oxygen tank worked quite well for her, though--every time she felt like she wasn't getting enough O2, she'd just grab the mask and take a few whiffs, and would feel okay again. So maybe that's an option your father can talk with his physician about.
posted by iminurmefi at 7:45 AM on October 21, 2007

Supplemental oxygen can be dangerous for people with CHF too, something I was surprised to learn as an intern. Most people's respiratory drive is based on the CO2 they need to blow off. In people with CHF though, sometimes this changes because of their trouble oxygenating, and their primary respiratory drive comes from oxygen hunger. You put these guys, these "blue bloaters" as they are sometimes called by the cardiologists, on supplemental oxygen and their respiratory drive suddenly tanks and they put themselves into a metabolic acidosis. So no, that's not the kind of advice I'd want to take from someone on the internet; I suggest that talking it over with the doc is the right way to go.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:19 AM on October 21, 2007

Air pressure in Denver (5000 feet elevation) is only about 80% of sea level, meaning that each lungfull of air has only 80% as many molecules of oxygen. Coming from a lower elevation, a healthy person at rest may not notice a difference, but any exertion (e.g., climbing stairs) needs increased air intake (panting) to get enough oxygen into the lungs and into the body.

In Denver, your father, with CHF, may not be able to pant fast enough to provide adequate oxygen intake, depending on how much he exerts himself.

Altitude sickness is not usually found at Denver's elevation, but can be seen in healthy persons exercising at higher elevations (Aspen is about 8000 feet). I don't know whether CHF is associated with altitude sickness or not.
posted by exphysicist345 at 1:30 PM on October 21, 2007

On a recent business trip, the factor wasn't the thinness of the air, it was the absolute dryness of it. It's quite humid here, and all my coworkers were taken OUT by it. I only noticed that I would lose my breath faster running up and down stairs, but the dryness made our eyes itchy, our lips chapped, and our skin dry. Dry air is harder to breathe, at least for many people---I'd watch out for that.
posted by TomMelee at 6:12 PM on October 21, 2007

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