This is a handout distributed by Dr. Christine Ebert-Santos, MD, MPS, at Ebert Family Clinic, Frisco, Colorado.
Living at high altitude is a challenge for our bodies. The amount of oxygen in the air we breathe is less the higher you go. Since we all need oxygen to live, this can cause problems.
There are three times when oxygen may be needed by children living at altitude:
- During the newborn period;
- When a child has a respiratory illness, even a mild cold;
- During the first 48 hours after returning/arriving from sea level.
When a baby takes their first breath, the higher oxygen level in the air sets off many changes in the heart, lungs and blood vessels around the lungs that convert the child’s respiratory system from transferring oxygen from the placenta to the lungs. Exposure to a low oxygen environment during the first few weeks can interfere with the normal fall in the pressures of the blood vessels in the lungs and closing of the vessels that shunted blood away from the lungs in the womb.
In babies and children, we are not worried about brain damage from lack of oxygen due to the altitude. Don’t panic if the oxygen cannula falls off during the night or the tank runs out. The problems caused by the low oxygen saturations (usually running between 78 – 88%) seen at altitude develop over days, weeks or years, due to changes in the heart and lung. Hypoxia, the term for low oxygen in the blood, causes constriction, or narrowing, of the blood vessels in the lungs. This can lead to back pressure on the lungs and heart, which may cause fluid to leak into the air sacs in the short term or abnormal increases in the heart muscle in the long ter.
Rarely do babies or children with low oxygen levels at altitude show symptoms. The normal oxygen saturation levels at 9000′ are about 92 – 93%, and can be 89 – 90% in healthy people. We start treating with oxygen below 89%, even though symptoms like trouble breathing, fast breathing, poor sleep, or poor color are unusual until the saturation level is in the 70’s.
It is important to understand that oxygen is prescribed by your doctor to treat symptoms of altitude sickness such as headache, vomiting and trouble breathing, and to prevent more severe symptoms from developing. A small percent of persons with mildly low oxygen levels will suddenly, over a few hours, go into full-blown pulmonary edema where their lungs fill with fluid, they have much more trouble breathing, and turn blue. This is a life threatening emergency.
When you arrive home with your child on oxygen, be sure and call the respiratory therapist at the phone number on the tank so they can come to your house and teach you about the equipment. Don’t feel discouraged if your toddler or young child is fighting the oxygen at first. They will usually adjust and accept the cannula in about 30 minutes.