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Feb 04, 2018

Safety Precautions for Heart Patients Traveling to High Altitudes

Experts offer advice on activity levels and taking medications.

While traveling to high altitudes can put added stress on the heart, there are key steps heart patients can take to ensure a safe trip, based on clinical recommendations recently published in the European Heart Journal.

Written by a team of experts from the European Society of Cardiology and other medical groups, these guidelines addressed the safety of high altitudes for heart patients. Traveling to high elevations can put added stress on the heart, and whether it’s safe for heart patients is largely debated.

To help provide guidance on the issue, experts reviewed existing evidence on high altitude exposure in heart patients. According to authors, there are very few clinical trials on the topic but available evidence should offer practical advice for both patients and providers.

In the new guidelines, experts explain exactly how high altitudes impact our health. According to experts, high altitudes are defined as anywhere more than 2,500 above sea level, where the air is “thinner.” Since the lungs get less oxygen at high elevations, the heart has to work harder to get oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body. This can cause symptoms like headaches, dizziness and fatigue, even for the healthiest of adults.

In heart patients, however, the effects of high altitudes are more concerning. Changes in altitude can affect factors like blood pressure, potentially worsening existing heart conditions.

For this reason, experts recommend that patients with severe heart conditions —like those with severe heart failure or uncontrolled very high blood pressure—or patients recovering from heart attack or a stent procedure should avoid traveling to high altitudes. Evidence suggests that it could be dangerous and increase risk of complications and heart events.

For most heart patients, however, simple precautions should do the trick to ensure save travel. For example, experts recommend only light to moderate physical activity while at high altitudes to avoid putting added strain on the heart. Heart patients who are never physically active shouldn’t start being active while at high altitudes. Evidence suggests that heart failure patients should avoid climbing more than 300–500 meters a day when in high-altitude locations, since drastic changes in elevation can worsen symptoms.

Experts also recommend reviewing current medications with a doctor before traveling and carefully taking all medications as prescribed during a trip.

When in doubt, experts recommend discussing any concerns with a doctor before traveling to high altitudes. While most heart patients can travel safely, simple precautions can go a long way in ensuring a safe trip.

Questions for You to Consider

  • What is heart failure?

  • Heart failure occurs when the heart is unable to pump enough blood to the rest of the body. Although there is no cure for heart failure, treatments such as ACE inhibitors and ARBs can help improve outcomes as well as quality of life.
  • What is medication adherence?
  • Medication adherence means taking the proper dose of medication at the right time and in the right way for as long as you're supposed to. Taking a medication incorrectly or not at all can render the drug ineffective, or worse, have a negative effect on your health.

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