January 01, 2020

High-altitude travel

Effects on your health

Planning a trip to the Rocky Mountains or South America? You may want to talk with a doctor first.

Not only can ascending quickly to high altitudes make you temporarily feel sick, it can also affect existing health conditions such as lung or heart disease or sleep apnea. And on rare occasions, it can lead to dangerous or life-threatening problems.

Most people will feel the negative effects of altitude at around 8,000 feet, and this can become a problem in popular vacation destinations such as:

  • Places close to 8,000 feet, such as Santa Fe, New Mexico (7,000 feet), Mexico City, Mexico (7,400 feet), and Machu Picchu, Peru (7,700 feet)
  • Places over 8,000 feet, such as Breckenridge, Colorado (9,600 feet), Quito, Ecuador (9,400 feet), and Bogota, Colombia (8,700 feet)
  • Places near or over 11,500 feet such as Jungfraujoch, Switzerland (11,400 feet), La Paz, Bolivia (12,000 feet), Lhasa, Tibet (12,000 feet), and Pikes Peak, Colorado (14,100 feet)

Adapting to altitude

As altitude increases, the pressure in the atmosphere drops. When you inhale, this pressure drives oxygen from your lungs to your blood and tissues. This is why high altitudes can result in an insufficient amount of oxygen in the body (hypoxia).

It's normal to feel the effects of hypoxia when visiting higher altitudes. You may feel short of breath, notice an increased heart rate, develop a headache, sleep poorly for two to three nights or urinate more frequently.

There's also a chance you'll experience altitude sickness. Anyone can get...