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Is There a Connection Between Sleep Apnea and High Altitude?

Posted On January 23, 2014
January 23, 2014

There are warnings on cake mixes and other kitchen products about taking into account the altitude when baking any item in the oven. Food is not the only thing that can be affected by high altitude. Your health is another, especially breathing. Making the intellectual jump, a question begs to be asked: Is there a connection between sleep apnea and high altitude? After all, sleep apnea adversely affects a person’s breathing at night.

When people suffer from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), they struggle to breathe at night due to a partial or full obstruction of their airway. Depending up on the severity of the blockage, breathing can be impacted to a variable degree. Bottom line is that air is not freely flowing into the lungs. As a result, oxygen levels get too low and conversely carbon dioxide levels get too high.

When a person visits or lives at a high altitude (greater than 4,000 feet), the air is thinner. In order to compensate, you breathe faster in an attempt to get more oxygen into your lungs, and your heart works harder to get oxygen-rich blood into circulation. At high altitudes, a breathing pattern know as high-altitude periodic breathing can occur whereby individuals alternate between rapid breathing and not breathing adequately. Altitude also impacts sleep as the low level of oxygen disrupts the area of your brain that monitors sleep. As a result, people might experience a decrease in the total time and quality of sleep, along with frequent instances of awakenings.

What You Need to Know

If you have either OSA or suffer from central sleep apnea (the brain is not functioning properly to monitor oxygen and carbon dioxide levels accurately), you need to follow best practices in handling high altitudes for any one:

  • Stay well hydrated with water
  • Limit alcohol consumption
  • Eat foods that are high in potassium
  • If traveling to a high altitude, take it easy the first couple of days in terms of exercise and activity until you become acclimated to the new elevation.

If you have OSA and treat your condition with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), do not stop. Bring your CPAP machine with you as you travel to a higher altitude. In the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), results of a study appeared that evaluated the best way to travel to high altitudes, prevent high-altitude periodic breathing and still effectively manage sleep apnea. Researchers discovered that individuals with OSA individuals can be helped by a combination of using their CPAP machines along with taking acetazolamide (Diamox), which is routinely used to treat mountain sickness. Although actually a diuretic, acetazolamide triggers more frequent breathing, and thus found to help subjects who had sleep apnea.

If you believe that you might have sleep apnea, please contact one of our medical concierges today at 1-855-863-4537 or schedule a free consultation.

About Phoebe Ochman

Phoebe Ochman, Director of Communications for Sleep Apnea Treatment Centers of America, manages all content and communications for the company.
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