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Smoking and Tobacco

Emphysema and high altitudes

06/09/1998

Question:

My Dad has emphysema. He quit smoking almost a year ago and for two months he seemed to be doing great. He then went to a high elevation (almost 14,000 feet) and he has been worse ever since. Can high altitudes worsen emphysema and if so is the worsening permanent or could he get back to feeling the way he did prior to his trip? Or is all of this just coincidence?

Answer:

Because of the emphysema, your father already has some lack of oxygen to vital organs. When going to high altitudes where the oxygen levels are lower, this tends to further deplete the body organs of oxygen. It is possible that your father may have had a heart attack due to this lack of oxygen. It is also possible that he may have developed high altitude pulmonary edema. This is a condition where the capillaries (tiny blood vessels of the lungs) become leaky. Body fluids will accumulate in the lungs when these capillaries leak, leading to persistent fatigue and shortness of breath. This condition needs to be treated promptly. High altitude pulmonary edema usually occurs at elevations above 12,000 feet.

Regarding the emphysema, the altitude alone should not worsen it. However, if your father has pulmonary edema, once this is treated, he may continue to be more easily susceptible to it, even at normal altitudes. His physician may wish to keep him on diuretics (medicine that pulls extra fluid out of the body through the kidneys) even after the pulmonary edema has resolved.

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Response by:

Margaret C Sweeney, MD
Formerly, Associate Professor of Clinical Family Medicine
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati