Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and altitude


Hi doc,

I currently live in pennsylvania and am wanting to move to Colorado. altitude of 8,747. My delima is, I have COPD. I have medicine for it but since i quit smoking i haven’t had to take it. My pulmonologist said that my breathing is better. I have never had to be on oxygen either. Is it possible for me to live in that altitude? Even if I took different meds to do it?    Thank you for your time.



Thank you for your question. At 8747ft, there is only 74% of the oxygen that is available at sea level.  For a person with any kind of lung disease, this can pose both short and long term problems.  As for anyone ascending to altitude, initially there will be a drop in your blood oxygen content.  However, for people with lung disease ascent to relatively modest altitudes can lead to more significant shortness of breath and a reduction in how far you can walk or how much you can exercise. During short term exposures to altitude (or on board aircraft) some people may even require supplemental oxygen.  This is something your pulmonologist can assess as it will depend on the severity of your condition.  With very mild lung disease supplemental oxygen may not be required and after a period of acclimatisation you may find your symptoms are similar to what they were at sea level.


However, longer term health problems also need to be considered. There are published studies which suggest that people with COPD who live at altitude don’t live as long as those living at sea level.  A possible explanation for this is the recognised consequence of lung disease causing strain on the heart. With less oxygen available in the air, blood vessels in the lung tend to constrict and this increases the workload of the right-hand side of the heart. Over time this can lead to a form of heart failure. Again your pulmonologist can arrange tests to assess your heart. If there is evidence of high pressure in blood vessels supplying the lungs, the safest approach is to avoid travel to altitude.

Dr Roger Thompson

Please remember Any answers we give are general: since we do not have access to your own health records we are unable to make specific recommendations about your health or treatment. All enquiries or concerns about your own health should be directed to your physician. Your email and any answer will be published at If you do not agree to this then please to not post a question here.

| April 18th, 2014 | Posted in Questions to the mountain doc team |

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