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Why Does My Asthma Flare When I Travel to Higher Elevations?

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I live at sea level and have a hard time breathing when I travel to places with higher elevation. I also have asthma. What can I do to breathe easier until I acclimate?

This is a great question. Most people with asthma, especially mild asthma that is well controlled, can travel to higher altitudes without breathing issues.

If you are going to be doing strenuous activities like hiking or skiing, make sure you are in good shape and in fit condition before your trip. Here are some ways to prepare:

  • Perform cardiovascular exercises to improve your overall fitness.
  • Practice breathing exercises, such as techniques used in yoga and mindful mediation to help with lung capacity.

Take all your asthma medications with you. This includes your quick-relief medicine and your daily asthma controller medications. Also, take any medicines you use for the "Yellow Zone" of your asthma action plan.

When you arrive at a higher altitude, start with easier activities such as walking and/or jogging. Continue to practice good, regular breathing activities. Staying well hydrated can help reduce many symptoms that happen at higher altitudes. If you experience asthma symptoms, stop your activity, rest, and use your asthma medicines as directed. Let others know that you are experiencing asthma symptoms so they can help you if needed. If your symptoms do not improve or get worse, seek care in a medical clinic in the area. This is important, to make sure that you are evaluated and treated appropriately for your symptoms.

If you have moderate to severe asthma and/or uncontrolled asthma, check with your doctor before you leave to an area of higher altitude. Discuss your asthma treatment plan with your doctor and make sure this is a reasonable trip for you to make.

Answered by

John M. James, MD, is a board-certified allergist. He is also President of Food Allergy Consulting and Education Services, LLC. He has worked as a medical specialist in the field of allergy, asthma, and immunology for over 30 years. Dr. James received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Arkansas and his Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Tennessee. He is board certified by the American Board of Allergy and Immunology.

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