Lung disease at high altitude

Expert Rev Respir Med. 2009 Dec;3(6):635-50. doi: 10.1586/ers.09.51.


Large numbers of people travel to high altitudes, entering an environment of hypobaric hypoxia. Exposure to low oxygen tension leads to a series of important physiologic responses that allow individuals to tolerate these hypoxic conditions. However, in some cases hypoxia triggers maladaptive responses that lead to various forms of acute and chronic high altitude illness, such as high-altitude pulmonary edema or chronic mountain sickness. Because the respiratory system plays a critical role in these adaptive and maladaptive responses, patients with underlying lung disease may be at increased risk for complications in this environment and warrant careful evaluation before any planned sojourn to higher altitudes. In this review, we describe respiratory disorders that occur with both acute and chronic exposures to high altitudes. These disorders may occur in any individual who ascends to high altitude, regardless of his/her baseline pulmonary status. We then consider the safety of high-altitude travel in patients with various forms of underlying lung disease. The available data regarding how these patients fare in hypoxic conditions are reviewed, and recommendations are provided for management prior to and during the planned sojourn.