Taking it Up a Notch

By Avery Keatley

High in the mountains of West Virginia, my friend and I have reached the summit of the Reverie Trail in Holly River State Park. We underestimated the trail and maybe overestimated our capacity for it. Rated a level four out of five, we ascend 800 feet, sneak behind a waterfall, criss-cross a creek on wobbly stones and logs, and climb a leaning staircase of rocks and wooden posts that threaten to fall sharply into a bed of boulders—all in tennis shoes and loose shorts. The ascents are sharp and the trail is buried in slippery, dry leaves. Going up is slow. Coming down is a crawl.

Campfire smoke can be both an allergy and asthma trigger.
Campfire smoke can be both an allergy and asthma trigger.

The yellow blazes lead us up to a small peak in the middle of the woods. I scan the trees for the next blaze, which is almost directly below us. The trail is steep and narrow. Dry leaves cover the trail, making secure footing nearly impossible. I consider sliding down when my friend grabs a scythe-shaped branch and rakes the leaves off the trail, exposing a layer of loose soil that provides better traction. The drop in elevation on the descent is much more rapid than the steady uphill of the ascent, the trail traveling steadily downwards. We both use sticks to steady ourselves and sweep leaves from the trail. By the time we reach the bottom we ache. My friend’s allergies are whipped up, and will be made only worse by the pollen and campfire smoke around us.

Although there were many allergy triggers on our route that could’ve caused an asthma attack, I got to wondering—does asthma respond to elevation? Dr. Sally Wenzel, the director of the Asthma Institute says no—mostly.

“Exercising at elevation should not directly affect asthma,” she states. There is a catch though. Anyone, with or without asthma, exercising 5000 feet above sea level pushes the body to work harder because there is less oxygen in the atmosphere. “People with exercise-induced asthma,” she says, “have to work harder to do less exercise, so it is possible asthma could come on earlier in the activity.”

Although elevation alone may not trigger asthma, there are factors associated with elevation that can cause an attack, especially if hiking or exercising at high altitudes. When we were hiking, we peaked at 2500 feet, half of what it would take for the air to become significantly thinner, but still 1300 feet higher than where we live in Pittsburgh.  Another compounding factor of elevation is the humidity of the air. Often, Dr. Wenzel elaborates, “higher altitudes are drier climates [and] drier air also can make exercise-induced asthma worse.”

Of the “Asthma Capitals” ranked by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, the top ten places where asthma control was better than average (91-100) range from 0 feet (Seattle, Washington) to 4549 feet (Provo, Utah) above sea level. So while there may not be a direct correlation with asthma and elevation, those with asthma should take precautions if exercising at higher, drier elevations.

Have you ever experienced an asthma attack at a high elevation? Share your story in the comments or on Twitter!


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