What can you tell me about oxygen and high altitudes?

My husband has had COPD and many Pneumothorax episodes with his lungs collapsing and lung reduction surgery. He is on oxygen full-time set at 4liters. He is a Veteran and smoker for over 40 years. He doesn’t seem to want to quit and he says it calms him down. Most of the people in his company are also smokers. I am trying to convince him to retire and enjoy some time off. He is 64. Our children are very upset and concerned about him. They are also angry for all he has put us through. The problem is my youngest daughter is getting married this summer and her dream wedding is in the mountains. My husband cannot tolerate high altitudes and I explained that to her but her response is if he quits smoking he can do it. I feel really torn about this issue because even if he quits he still will have problems with altitude. Who do I support here??


Community Answers
  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    1 year ago

    Hi Johnston401 and thanks for posting your family situation – that’s quite a dilemma for the family to deal with! I see that Erin has provided quite a comprehensive evaluation and one that deserves due consideration.
    Your husband’s medical condition sounds to be rather complex with COPD and recurrent pneumothoraces as well as lung reduction surgery. His desire to continue smoking complicates his medical conditions and health even further.
    Recognizing your daughter’s intent is to get married ‘in the mountains’, this may be simpler than we think. People who have difficulty breathing at ‘high altitudes’ have that difficulty at truly higher elevations. (Think the city of Denver, the ‘mile high’ city, which can even pose challenges for people with normal lungs!). Is it possible for this to be resolved in a ‘mountain setting’ that is not at that significant a height? This isn’t meant to be an ‘oversimplification’ of a solution, but rather to provide a remedy that could be a bit more practical.
    Perhaps some thought can be given to this and further discussion.
    Please check back with us and let us know what you think.
    All the best,
    Leon (site moderator)

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    1 year ago

    Hi again, Johnston401 and yes, we can see your reply to Erin.
    Based on your latest post (at 12:27am), there may be some additional information for you to consider. Although everyone is different, in the most general of terms, flying may not pose a problem – since the cabins are pressurized and he is wearing his supplemental oxygen. This pressurized cabin provides a normal atmospheric pressure for the passengers to be able to breathe.
    If your husband had difficulties in Yosemite National Park before, it would stand to reason he will still have those difficulties now, especially since his health condition is different now than it was back then, as you described.
    To determine how he will do at higher altitudes, I would suggest you discuss this with his doctor for advice and guidance. The only other sure way to determine how he will do is to be at the different altitudes to evaluate his specific response – that may not be something to take a chance with in view of his anxiety towards this issue.
    I hope this provided you with a bit more insight.
    Warmly,
    Leon (site moderator)

  • johnston401 author
    1 year ago

    Thank you, I sent a reply to Erin I hope you can see. Regardless of the smoking the altitude will be an issue for him due to past experience when we visited Yosemite well before all this began where he felt he could not breathe and caused him a lot of anxiety. We have traveled on airplanes with oxygen and he did okay. Would traveling on airplanes with altitude be the same as traveling in higher altitude like mountains? We will be at 4500 ft. He is on oxygen full time now, except when he smokes of course.
    Are you saying that someone with COPD in his condition may be okay with certain altitudes? I just need to know how much of effect high altitudes have on someone on oxygen. I am not asking for a Medical opinion but I would like to hear about past experiences people may have in this situation.

  • Erin Rush moderator
    1 year ago

    Hi johnston401! I am so sorry you are in the middle of this situation. As a daughter of a former smoker and a former smoking cessation coach, I can see both sides of this argument. The resentment and frustration your children are feeling is pretty normal, but that resentment can also make it harder for your husband to quit. He may feel that added pressure that he cannot screw up — even once. Quitting is hard, but definitely not impossible. And no one can make your husband want to quit (as you well know!) My stepfather kept smoking after two lung scares. It took a quadruple bypass to finally get him to give up his 50+ year smoking habit.

    I also can see that your daughter truly wants her dream wedding. And perhaps she sees your husband’s smoking as just one more time when smoking seems to “win out” over her needs/wants, if that makes sense.

    I am not sure if your daughter is kind of offering an ultimatum here or not, since I do not know your family dynamics. Is this kind of a “choose your daughter or your smoking” kind of thing? Weddings do tend to bring out the best and the worst in people at the same time. The stress of such a big life change can really do a number on everyone involved!

    As I mentioned above, I do get some of the issues at play here. I can empathize with your children’s anger and resentment. And I can see how hard it is for you to love and care about everyone involved and not knowing who to side with. You should not have to “pick sides” in this. And I see how your husband is not ready to quit at this time. In an ever changing and stressful life, smoking can be a reliable constant for a person.

    While I cannot personally endorse this website, I do know that a number of former smokers have found the QuitNow program very helpful — https://www.quitnow.net/Program/About/.

    Is it possible to arrange a family sit-down or a conference call to get things out in the open? Maybe not as a time to attack your husband, but as a time to come together and try to make this wedding the best possible event for the entire family.

    There *is* hope! I do hope your family is able to work something out and have a wonderful, memory-making day!

    Best, Erin, COPD.net Team Member.

  • johnston401 author
    1 year ago

    Thank you so much for your really thoughtful reply. I agree that my husband is not ready to quit right now and the pressure only makes it worse. I noticed the more I complain the more he smoked. It may have some sort of coping with his condition so I decided to let it go and not become a nag. He knows how we feel. My concern is that he is just giving up and thinking what is the use and this is all I have left. My hope is once I get him to quit working and retire it may be easier.
    The other problem is my daughter, who by the way just became an RN attitude towards this. Maybe she thinks that this may motivate him to quit. I don’t want to ruin her plans but I feel regardless of the smoking the altitude issue is going to be a problem for him.
    Her response is if he can fly with oxygen at altitudes he should be able to tolerate this. I am not sure if that would be the same as flying. Either way he has a lot of anxiety when he travels anywhere.
    I really like your idea of a family meeting. I tried it in the past but we never could seem to do it without everyone becoming defensive. I will try again at the Holidays when everyone might be more open.

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