Is It Worth Moving to a Different Altitude to Relieve the Symptoms of COPD?

If you have COPD and live at a high altitude, such as in Denver, should you consider pulling up roots and moving somewhere closer to sea level? Will such a move help you avoid, or at least postpone, the need to use oxygen?

The simple answer is yes. The lower the altitude, the richer the mix of oxygen in the air. A move from a high altitude to a significantly lower altitude will very likely lessen your need for an oxygen tank to deal with COPD. On the basis of your need for oxygen, it makes sense to move.

The real-life answer, however, may be different. You’ll need to consider many other factors such as the support system where you currently live, the friends you’ll be leaving behind, and how much you love your current location versus the one you’re considering. These factors affect your emotional health and your happiness, which in turn can have an effect on your physical health. Happier, generally, is healthier.

Climate must be considered as well. Increased humidity, for example, can exacerbate other conditions you may have, such as bronchieactasis. Consider also the caliber of medical care in each locale.

It’s important to be aware of the big picture – your overall physical health and how happy you’ll be living in your prospective versus your current location – as well as the oxygen levels in the air, when considering how a move may help you manage the symptoms of COPD. Discuss the pros and cons with your doctor before you make a final decision.

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4 Comments
  • Avatar
    Alfred Bergbauer
    Posted at 09:31h, 15 September Reply

    I suffer from COPD and scarring of lung tissue caused by Scleroderma. I live in PA and am considering a visit to Longmont CO which has an altitude of 1529. Not sure if this presents a potential breathing problem.

    • Avatar
      PERF
      Posted at 13:37h, 24 September Reply

      Dear Alfred,

      How wise of you to consider this potential problem when you are suffering from the double whammy of both COPD and scleroderma! There are several things that need to be considered. First, make an appointment with your pulmonologist to discuss the extent of your current lung problem, blood oxygen level and ability to tolerate higher altitudes. Ask for copies of your last pulmonary function test and arterial blood gasses to take with you on your trip. If necessary he or she can do a high altitude test to see how your body and oxygen levels react to various levels of altitude.

      While an altitude of 1,520 ft probably would not cause a problem, there are several other factors involved. I assume you currently live substantially below that level? Are you planning to fly or to drive? When you fly, the pressure inside the airplane can be as low as that seen at 10,000 ft (but usually at about 8,000 ft) for part of the flight. You might check with the airline, if you are flying, to see how long you would be at that attitude. Will you need supplemental oxygen for that short time of high elevation or can you maintain an adequate oxygen level with good pursed lip breathing (PLB)? Your doctor needs to help you decide that. Do you have an oximeter to check your oxygen levels and have you been taught PLB? Both would greatly help. When you get to your destination you also need to consider if you will be driving around, since much of beautiful Colorado is at a much higher altitude. Denver, for instance, is over 5,000 ft.

      I suggest you check the articles in our website under Chronic Respiratory Disease 101 for information on breathing techniques, altitude, oximeters etc. all of which could be of interest to you. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to give you a simple answer, as you might have hoped, but I hope I have provided enough information to keep you out of trouble and help you enjoy a great visit. Feel free to ask any more questions you may think of after seeing your pulmonologist.

      Good luck, and best wishes for a wonderful trip,

      ~ Mary Burns, RN, BS
      (Ret) Assistant Clinical Professor, School of Nursing, UCLA

  • Avatar
    Rex Layfield
    Posted at 10:32h, 08 February Reply

    To: Alfred Bergbauer. I live in the Fort Collins, CO area (in foothills @ 7,000 feet); which is a few miles north of Longmont, Co. Please note that the elevation of Longmont is closer to 5,000 feet than the 1,520 feet you mentioned. Fort Collins elevation is about 4,900 feet, and the elevations tend increase as one travels south. I too have COPD and struggle with breathing difficulties, even at rest (age 74).
    We are planning on relocating to a lower elevation (Arizona or Texas) to help with my breathing issues and to escape the long, cold winters.

    Hope this helps.
    Best Regards,
    Rex Layfield

    • Avatar
      PERF
      Posted at 16:27h, 08 February Reply

      Dear Rex,

      Thanks so much for providing this information to Alfred. You bring up a good point for anyone with respiratory disease whom might be concerned about visiting or living at altitude. When we read Alfred’s message we assumed that the altitude he mentioned for Longmont, CO was measured in feet. In fact, Alfred probably was referring to 1519 meters, which is almost 5,000 feet; more like the altitudes you mention for the area.

      This mixup reminds me of the story of the Mars Climate Orbiter. A very simple misunderstanding between English and US units of measurement caused the orbiter to crash, spectacularly, into the surface of Mars (https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1999-oct-01-mn-17288-story.html)! That might have been a very expensive mistake for NASA, but its a good lesson for all of us not to assume that the information you get is correct – especially when your health is concerned.

      When we Googled the altitude of Longmont CO, we read that the elevation is 4,984 ft (1,519 m) above sea level. As you point out it can quickly could get much higher in the surrounding foothills. During a visit, Alfred might have assumed he was going to visit 4,984 ft for the whole time, but if he was to drive around the area, he might have needed to climb to higher altitudes still. In some mountain communities, it may be very difficult to avoid short excursions to higher altitudes depending on where the roads are built. Patients with breathing difficulties should be prepared for such eventualities when planning a trip, such as making sure there is a supply of oxygen available and/or carrying extra batteries for a concentrator. For patients with COPD, good technique purse-lip breathing can also raise your oxygen saturation (see our website for more info on breathing techniques: https://perf2ndwind.org/basics/breathing-techniques/).

      At 5,000 ft, even if Alfred stayed in the city, it would greatly impact his breathing. Going higher could make breathing even more difficult. As you are finding out yourself, this may prompt some major life decisions, such as you are considering to move to lower elevation.

      Thanks so much for reading this response to our blog and adding some very worthwhile information. It is greatly appreciated.

      Best wishes in your new location,

      Mary Burns, RN, BS
      and
      Harry Rossiter, PhD

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