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Effects of high altitude, COPD and temperature extremes

Created date

January 9th, 2017

Please note: The following questions were submitted by readers. The answers are intended for your general information and should not replace a doctor’s medical advice.

Q. My wife wants to move to a city located in the mountains. How will the high elevation affect our health? 

A. For the most part, the degree to which your health will be affected depends on the altitude and your current state of health. At high altitudes (over 4,500–5,000 feet above sea level), people are exposed to significantly lower oxygen concentrations in the air and decreased atmospheric pressure, which can exacerbate chronic conditions such as heart, lung, or kidney disease. Even if you are very healthy, you could experience altitude sickness for weeks to months (symptoms include fatigue, nausea, headaches, insomnia, and elevated blood pressure). You may not feel up to physical activity until you have been there a couple of months. 

It is extremely important that you and your wife talk to your doctors, before you consider moving, to develop an individualized plan. It would also be prudent to set up your medical care in your new city before you go—have a provider picked out and make sure any equipment you use here (such as supplemental oxygen) is available upon your arrival. The human body is quite adaptable, however, even in the later years, so you should adjust after you’ve spent several months at your new home. 

Q. I love brisk weather, but is it harmful to go outside in cold weather if I have COPD?

A. People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) should avoid breathing air at either temperature extreme—generally over 90°F or below 32°F. Studies show that high or low temperatures can trigger or worsen symptoms such as cough, mucous production, or shortness of breath. Symptom triggers, however, vary significantly for COPD sufferers so you may be able to spend some limited amount of time outside without any ill effects. Some research shows that fatigue in particular is a common complaint among COPD patients who have spent time outside in cold weather. For added protection during the winter months, you should wash your hands, avoid crowds, and get flu and pneumonia vaccines if your doctor says it’s okay.

Robert Stewart, M.D., Medical Director at Wind Crest, received his bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M University in College Station, Tex., and his medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Tex. He completed his residency at Floyd County Hospital in Rome, Ga. Stewart is board-certified in family medicine. He joined Wind Crest in November 2013.