Andrew M. Luks and Colin K. Grissom
Prior to COVID-19, I would hike the beautiful mountains of Colorado known as 14ers, a name given to these mountains for being over 14,000 ft. I, like most high-altitude travelers faced the more common concerns associated with hiking such as acute mountain sickness (AMS), high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), and high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). With the increase in high-altitude travel, I wondered if there are any new precautions that we should consider before resuming the activities that we love.
The purpose of this article is to highlight the recommendations for patients who wish to return to high-altitude travel after a COVID infection. Not everyone needs an evaluation after a COVID infection. The recommendations noted in this article are based on the duration and severity of the illness of each individual person.
So, who should receive an evaluation before high-altitude travel?
- Individuals with symptoms after 2 weeks of a positive COVID-19 test without hospitalization,
- Individuals with symptoms after 2 weeks after hospital discharge,
- Anyone who required care in the intensive care unit (ICU), and
- Anyone who developed myocarditis or thromboembolic events. The recommendations are to undergo pulse oximetry at rest and with activity, spirometry, lung volumes, and diffusion capacity for carbon monoxide(DLCO), chest imaging, electrocardiography (EKG), B-type natriuretic peptide, high sensitivity cardiac troponin (hsTn), and echocardiography.
It is expected that people with lower oxygen levels (hypoxemia) at rest or with exertion in lower elevations will experience greater hypoxemia with ascent to high altitude. It has been shown that ascent to high altitude causes a decrease in barometric pressure leading to a decrease in ambient and inspired partial pressure of oxygen. The decrease in partial pressure of oxygen in alveoli (PaO2) will trigger vasoconstriction of pulmonary arterioles that slows the rate of oxygen diffusion and activates chemoreceptors that increase minute ventilation from hypoxia. However, it is still unclear whether people with low oxygen levels at low elevations are at greater risk for acute altitude illness after ascent. The recommendation is to monitor pulse oximetry after arrival of high altitude.
Individuals with abnormal lung function tests don’t have to avoid high altitude travel as previous studies have shown that patients with COPD with abnormal lung functions tolerate exposure. Furthermore, in people with mild to severe COVID-19 symptoms, the lung mechanic markers such as forced expiratory volume (FEV1), forced vital capacity (FVC) and total lung capacity (TLC) normalize in up to 150 days of infection. However, if individuals have severe limitations with exercise capacity, they should monitor their oxygen levels with pulse oximetry after ascent. Reduction in exercise capacity is possible after COVID infection and depends on the severity of the illness. Blokland et al., 2020 has shown that previously intubated individuals had a median VO2 max of 15ml/kg per min (average male 35 to 40 and average female 27 and 30), roughly 57% predicted immediately after hospitalization.
In acute hypoxia, the heart rate increases, which leads to an increase in cardiac output. Individuals with reduced ventricular function from COVID infection do not have to avoid travel. Previous research has shown that individuals with heart failure can tolerate exercise with hypoxia. Moreover, data has shown that individuals with COVID infection maintain preserved left ventricular function and only 3% show a reduced ejection fraction. Individuals with abnormal EKG rhythms and ischemia should be referred to cardiology. If high sensitivity troponin was abnormally elevated, this would require evaluation for myocarditis with a cardiac MRI. Knight et al., (2020), found that 45% of patients with unexplained elevations of high-sensitivity troponin were found to have myocarditis during hospitalization. It is still unclear how long these abnormalities will last and how it will affect people.
A concerning finding on ECHO is pulmonary hypertension, as previous research has shown an increased risk in developing HAPE. A study reported that 10% of patients hospitalized for COVID without mechanical ventilation had right ventricular dysfunction for over 2 months. Several studies reported that 7-10% of individuals may have pulmonary hypertension after COVID infection. A vasodilating drug such as nifedipine can be given prophylactically if pulmonary hypertension is unrelated to left heart dysfunction but nifedipine can worsen hypoxemia.
The recommendation for patients who developed myocarditis from a COVID infection is to have an ECHO, Holter monitor, and exercise EKG 3-6 months after illness. Travel can resume after a normal ECHO, no arrhythmias on exercise EKG, and after inflammatory markers (ESR and/or CRP) have normalized. Previous studies suspected that areas with low atmospheric pressures (e.g., high-altitude) that induce hypoxia have increased risk for clot formation. However, this suspicion has never been firmly established; therefore there is no reason to believe that high-altitude will increase the risk for clot formation in individuals who developed an arterial or venous clot from COVID infection.
A few things to consider before planning a high-altitude excursion includes planning to visit areas with access to medical resources or the ability to descend rapidly. If you are new to high altitude, it is recommended to slow the ascent rate. Traveling to high elevations (>4000m) should be avoided until tolerance has developed with moderate elevations (2000-3000m). A more gradual return to physical activity at high altitude is recommended rather than immediate resumption of heavy exertion. As the pandemic subsides and with increase in mountain travel, more research will develop that can better address these risks.
Good news! The Ebert Family Clinic in Frisco, CO provides pulse oximeters for free. So, make sure to visit and grab your pulse oximeter before your next ascent.
Quick Summary of Recommendations
Individuals who require evaluation prior to high-altitude travel:
- Individuals who have symptoms after 2 weeks of a positive COVID-19 test without hospitalization
- Individuals who have symptoms after 2 weeks after hospital discharge
- Any patient who required care in the intensive care unit (ICU)
- Any patient who developed myocarditis or thromboembolic events
General recommendations for anyone before high-altitude travel:
- Monitor pulse oximetry after arrival of high altitude, and access care or descend if symptoms worsen.
- Rest and avoid high-altitude travel for at least 2 weeks after a positive test, and consider a gradually return to physical activity at higher altitudes.
- All individuals planning high-altitude travel should be counseled on how to recognize, prevent, and treat the primary forms of acute altitude illness (AMS, HACE, and HAPE)
- Limit the extent of planned exertion after ascent and, instead, engage in graded increases in activity that allow the individual to assess performance and avoid overextending themselves.
Reasons to forgo high-altitude travel:
- Severely elevated pulmonary artery pressures may be a reason to forego high-altitude travel altogether.
- High-altitude travel should likely be avoided while active inflammation is present in myocarditis.
- Patients who experienced arterial thromboembolic events due to COVID-19, (e.g. myocardial infarction or stroke) should defer return to high altitude for several months after that event or any associated revascularization procedures.
- Andrew M. Luks and Colin K. Grissom. Return to High Altitude After Recovery from Coronavirus Disease 2019. High Altitude Medicine & Biology. http://doi.org/10.1089/ham.2021.0049
- Christensen CC, Ryg M, Refvem OK, Skjønsberg OH. Development of severe hypoxaemia in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease patients at 2,438 m (8,000 ft) altitude. Eur Respir J. 2000 Apr;15(4):635-9. doi: 10.1183/09031936.00.15463500. PMID: 10780752.
- Blokland IJ, Ilbrink S, Houdijk H, Dijkstra JW, van Bennekom CAM, Fickert R, de Lijster R, Groot FP. Inspanningscapaciteit na beademing vanwege covid-19 [Exercise capacity after mechanical ventilation because of COVID-19: Cardiopulmonary exercise tests in clinical rehabilitation]. Ned Tijdschr Geneeskd. 2020 Oct 29;164:D5253. Dutch. PMID: 33331718.
Jesse Santana is a second-year PA student at Red Rocks Community College in Denver, Colorado. He grew up in Colorado Springs, CO and attended the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs where he earned a bachelor’s in Biology and Psychology. Jesse worked as a Certified Nursing Assistant for two years before pursuing a Master’s in Biomedical Sciences at Regis University in Denver. Shortly after, he coordinated clinical trials in endocrinology and weight loss as a Clinical Research Coordinator at University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. He enjoys hiking Colorado’s 14ers, spending time with family and friends, and camping.