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Is Travelling to High Altitudes Safe in Pregnancy?

I was 30 weeks pregnant when our family travelled through New Mexico and Colorado while we were relocating from Atlanta back to Edmonton. The mountains in these states have altitudes greater than 10,000 feet (3048 metres)!  During my medical training, I learned about the potential consequences of high altitudes for non-pregnant travellers.  But what I didn’t know was the risks of high altitude travel during pregnancy. 

The effects of high altitudes and pregnancy have been extensively studied in women who live at high altitudes.  But there is less knowledge when it comes to the traveling pregnant woman.  

journal article published by High Altitude Medicine & Biology has provided some guidance for physicians whose patients are or wish to travel to high altitudes during their pregnancies.  

Exposure to low oxygen levels causes physiologic responses that try to preserve mother’s and baby’s oxygen levels. However, these responses are limited and sometimes complications can occur, especially in association with exercise. The paper explained “certain pre-existing conditions or risk factors of hypertension/preeclampsia and/or fetal growth restriction are contraindications for traveling to high altitude, especially after 20 weeks.” They also recommended a gradual acclimatization process to avoid acute mountain sickness and at least a few days of acclimatization are required before exercising.

The CDC suggests “pregnant women should avoid activities at high altitude unless trained for and accustomed to such activities; women unaccustomed to high altitudes may experience exaggerated breathlessness and palpitations.” Fortunately, there have not been studies or case reports show harm to a fetus if the mother travels briefly to high altitudes during pregnancy. The CDC recommends that pregnant women do not sleep at altitudes greater than 12,000 feet (3,658 metres) if possible.

During our family road trip through New Mexico and Colorado, Graeme and I ensured we stayed at altitudes less than 9000 feet (2743 metres).  I also made sure to take it easy and not overly exert myself at the higher altitudes for the short duration we were there.  

This post was co-authored by Erin Manchuk, BScPharm, BCGP and Stephanie Liu, MD, MSc, CCFP, BHSc.

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