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High altitude effects

An increase in altitude results in a decrease in atmospheric pressure. Although the proportion of oxygen relative to gases in the atmosphere remains at 21 percent, its partial pressure decreases ( [link] ). As a result, it is more difficult for a body to achieve the same level of oxygen saturation at high altitude than at low altitude, due to lower atmospheric pressure. In fact, hemoglobin saturation is lower at high altitudes compared to hemoglobin saturation at sea level. For example, hemoglobin saturation is about 67 percent at 19,000 feet above sea level, whereas it reaches about 98 percent at sea level.

Partial Pressure of Oxygen at Different Altitudes
Example location Altitude (feet above sea level) Atmospheric pressure (mm Hg) Partial pressure of oxygen (mm Hg)
New York City, New York 0 760 159
Boulder, Colorado 5000 632 133
Aspen, Colorado 8000 565 118
Pike’s Peak, Colorado 14,000 447 94
Denali (Mt. McKinley), Alaska 20,000 350 73
Mt. Everest, Tibet 29,000 260 54

As you recall, partial pressure is extremely important in determining how much gas can cross the respiratory membrane and enter the blood of the pulmonary capillaries. A lower partial pressure of oxygen means that there is a smaller difference in partial pressures between the alveoli and the blood, so less oxygen crosses the respiratory membrane. As a result, fewer oxygen molecules are bound by hemoglobin. Despite this, the tissues of the body still receive a sufficient amount of oxygen during rest at high altitudes. This is due to two major mechanisms. First, the number of oxygen molecules that enter the tissue from the blood is nearly equal between sea level and high altitudes. At sea level, hemoglobin saturation is higher, but only a quarter of the oxygen molecules are actually released into the tissue. At high altitudes, a greater proportion of molecules of oxygen are released into the tissues. Secondly, at high altitudes, a greater amount of BPG is produced by erythrocytes, which enhances the dissociation of oxygen from hemoglobin. Physical exertion, such as skiing or hiking, can lead to altitude sickness due to the low amount of oxygen reserves in the blood at high altitudes. At sea level, there is a large amount of oxygen reserve in venous blood (even though venous blood is thought of as “deoxygenated”) from which the muscles can draw during physical exertion. Because the oxygen saturation is much lower at higher altitudes, this venous reserve is small, resulting in pathological symptoms of low blood oxygen levels. You may have heard that it is important to drink more water when traveling at higher altitudes than you are accustomed to. This is because your body will increase micturition (urination) at high altitudes to counteract the effects of lower oxygen levels. By removing fluids, blood plasma levels drop but not the total number of erythrocytes. In this way, the overall concentration of erythrocytes in the blood increases, which helps tissues obtain the oxygen they need.

Acute mountain sickness (AMS) , or altitude sickness, is a condition that results from acute exposure to high altitudes due to a low partial pressure of oxygen at high altitudes. AMS typically can occur at 2400 meters (8000 feet) above sea level. AMS is a result of low blood oxygen levels, as the body has acute difficulty adjusting to the low partial pressure of oxygen. In serious cases, AMS can cause pulmonary or cerebral edema. Symptoms of AMS include nausea, vomiting, fatigue, lightheadedness, drowsiness, feeling disoriented, increased pulse, and nosebleeds. The only treatment for AMS is descending to a lower altitude; however, pharmacologic treatments and supplemental oxygen can improve symptoms. AMS can be prevented by slowly ascending to the desired altitude, allowing the body to acclimate, as well as maintaining proper hydration.


Especially in situations where the ascent occurs too quickly, traveling to areas of high altitude can cause AMS. Acclimatization is the process of adjustment that the respiratory system makes due to chronic exposure to a high altitude. Over a period of time, the body adjusts to accommodate the lower partial pressure of oxygen. The low partial pressure of oxygen at high altitudes results in a lower oxygen saturation level of hemoglobin in the blood. In turn, the tissue levels of oxygen are also lower. As a result, the kidneys are stimulated to produce the hormone erythropoietin (EPO), which stimulates the production of erythrocytes, resulting in a greater number of circulating erythrocytes in an individual at a high altitude over a long period. With more red blood cells, there is more hemoglobin to help transport the available oxygen. Even though there is low saturation of each hemoglobin molecule, there will be more hemoglobin present, and therefore more oxygen in the blood. Over time, this allows the person to partake in physical exertion without developing AMS.

Chapter review

Normally, the respiratory centers of the brain maintain a consistent, rhythmic breathing cycle. However, in certain cases, the respiratory system must adjust to situational changes in order to supply the body with sufficient oxygen. For example, exercise results in increased ventilation, and chronic exposure to a high altitude results in a greater number of circulating erythrocytes. Hyperpnea, an increase in the rate and depth of ventilation, appears to be a function of three neural mechanisms that include a psychological stimulus, motor neuron activation of skeletal muscles, and the activation of proprioceptors in the muscles, joints, and tendons. As a result, hyperpnea related to exercise is initiated when exercise begins, as opposed to when tissue oxygen demand actually increases.

In contrast, acute exposure to a high altitude, particularly during times of physical exertion, does result in low blood and tissue levels of oxygen. This change is caused by a low partial pressure of oxygen in the air, because the atmospheric pressure at high altitudes is lower than the atmospheric pressure at sea level. This can lead to a condition called acute mountain sickness (AMS) with symptoms that include headaches, disorientation, fatigue, nausea, and lightheadedness. Over a long period of time, a person’s body will adjust to the high altitude, a process called acclimatization. During acclimatization, the low tissue levels of oxygen will cause the kidneys to produce greater amounts of the hormone erythropoietin, which stimulates the production of erythrocytes. Increased levels of circulating erythrocytes provide an increased amount of hemoglobin that helps supply an individual with more oxygen, preventing the symptoms of AMS.

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Source:  OpenStax, Anatomy & Physiology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 04, 2016 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11496/1.8
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