Is Undiagnosed COPD Common in Patients Living at High Altitudes?

doctor looking at x-ray of lungs
doctor looking at x-ray of lungs
After accounting for individual risk factors, living altitude is not associated with variability in COPD prevalence.

Patients living in high altitude locations may have an increased risk for experiencing undiagnosed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), according to a study published in Respiratory Research.

Researchers identified 30,874 individuals from 44 worldwide locations; 12.9% (n=3978) resided above 1500 m and 51.3% resided at less than 250 m above sea level. Risk factors for COPD, including smoking or former tuberculosis, were significantly less prevalent in individuals residing in higher altitudes. In addition, airflow limitation symptoms, such as cough, phlegm, dyspnea, and wheezing, were reportedly less frequent in participants residing at 1500 m or higher.

Study results demonstrated a significantly lower prevalence of COPD in participants living at high altitude compared with those living at a lower altitude (8.5% vs 9.9%; P <.005). However, participants residing at high altitudes with airflow limitations consistent with COPD were at an increased risk for undiagnosed COPD compared with participants living at altitudes less than 1500 m (85.5% vs 80.8%).

The investigators concluded that high altitudes do not influence the prevalence of COPD, but may be associated with an increased risk for undiagnosed COPD as a result of patients being less symptomatic at higher altitudes.

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Horner A, Soriano J, Puhan M, et al; for the BOLD Collaborative Research Group, the EPI-SCAN Team, the PLATINO Team, and the PREPOCOL Study Group. Altitude and COPD prevalence: analysis of the PREPOCOL-PLATINO-BOLD-EPI-SCAN studyResp Res. 2017;18(1):162.