Asthma and Altitude

She died on the Breckenridge bike path clutching her inhaler, I heard. For years I was reminded by a memorial along the path. Then another man called last week say he is selling his house located at 10,500 feet because his trouble breathing interferes with skiing and rock climbing. “I use my inhaler 50 times a day,” he told me. “The doctor said I have asthma.”  Recently two doctors in Summit County have started to question whether some people living at high altitude may have another cause of their breathing problems such at high altitude pulmonary edema or pulmonary hypertension.

I frequently see children in my office with a respiratory illness and low oxygen, with readings in the 80’s or below. They are not leaning forward, gasping for air, using their rib muscles to breathe, like a person with an asthma attack severe enough to cause low oxygen. They do not have wheezes heard with the stethoscope. We usually give a trial of albuterol, since the medicine has minimal side effects and asthma is a common condition, but it rarely makes a big difference. We also test peak flows on patients over 5 to try and measure airway resistance seen in asthmatics. Then we send them home on oxygen, the treatment for high altitude pulmonary edema, and they get better.

Many of the families whose children need oxygen during illnesses are evaluated by lung specialists at Colorado Children’s Hospital or National Jewish Hospital. They are all told they have asthma and treated with inhaled steroids and albuterol. Pulmonary testing in the older children suggests reversible airway disease in about half. Recently the pulmonologist told us he does not believe the child had HAPE and requested a chest x-ray at the time of any future episode.

“Fulminant cases of HAPE do show dramatic changes in the x-rays, such as a recent case of a six year old who returned from sea level and overnight his oxygen dropped into the 40’s. But when we see patients with milder illness they often have clear lungs and the chest x-ray will not be abnormal until a day or two later. I rarely orders x-rays to make the diagnoses.

Since the pulmonologists are skeptical about the occurrence of HAPE in residents at high altitude, Dr. Ebert-Santos is proposing the syndrome be called “Acute Hypoxia of High Altitude Residents” or AHHAR. We need to figure out what is going on with our lungs at altitude. I’m trying to organize research concerning these issues.

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