Effects of Altitude on Respiration

Oxygen is less accessible at higher altitudes, and this can cause a cluster of symptoms called altitude sickness. People living at or visiting high altitudes must learn to breathe more efficiently to avoid altitude sickness. The chronic lack of oxygen at high altitudes can lead to serious, life-threatening illnesses such as pulmonary edema and loss of consciousness. If you're traveling to high altitudes for the first time, take several days to make your trip. This gives your body time to gradually acclimate to the decreased available oxygen.

Altitude and Oxygen

It's a popular misconception that there is less oxygen available in the air at higher altitudes. Instead, the air pressure is substantially lower, meaning air particles are farther apart. The result: The same amount of oxygen is in the air, but it is less accessible.

Short-Term Effects

Causes of Low Blood Oxygen Levels

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The decreased availability of oxygen at higher altitudes can quickly lead to hypoxia, which occurs when the body has insufficient access to oxygen. Your lungs must work harder, and this can result in a variety of physical ailments. Symptoms of hypoxia include difficulty concentrating, headaches, dizziness, difficulty walking, decreased energy and confusion. In severe cases, hypoxia can cause hemorrhaging in the lungs as well as fluid around the brain.


To compensate for decreased available oxygen at higher elevations, you must breathe faster. Some people respond to hypoxia by hyperventilating. Hyperventilation makes oxygen less accessible because people take short, rapid, ineffective breaths. People who learn to breathe slightly faster while taking efficient breaths, however, are less likely to develop hypoxia. When people live at high elevations their entire lives, they may naturally learn this breathing style.

Long-Term Effects

Causes of High Carbon Dioxide in the Blood

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When the body adapts to higher altitudes -- either after a period of acclimation or as a result of living at high elevations -- there are several changes to respiration. First, the lungs become larger, which enables them to take in more oxygen. The body also produces more red blood cells and capillaries, enabling the lungs to more efficiently oxygenate the blood. Staying at high altitudes after you develop altitude sickness, however, will not cause this effect. More efficient oxygen intake is a product of long-term exposure to high elevations, and altitude sickness prevents your body from efficiently adapting to higher altitudes.