High Altitude Elevation During Pregnancy and Complications

    Q: Is it safe to be at a high altitude during pregnancy and what are potential complications?

    Woman pregnancy altitude

    A: High altitude is generally defined as being above 5,000 feet (1,500 m). One mile is 5,280 feet. Denver is at 5,260 feet and Santa Fe is at 6,989 feet. Mount McKinley in Alaksa is considered to be the highest mountain in the US with 20,320 ft (6,194 m) and Mauna Kea in Hawaii is 13,803 ft (4207 m) high. See also more information on states with elevations.

    Some studies suggest that living above 8,000 feet or more increases certain pregnancy complications. However, if you live at a low altitude and you then travel to a high altitude such as above 5,000 feet, you may be actually at increased risk because you are not accustomed to live at a higher altitude. It takes some time to get used living at a higher altitude. 

    There is limited data on the actual impact of high altitude in pregnancy and what's available suggests that this may aggravate complications of pregnancy and prenatal life such as:

    1. Fetal growth retardation
    2. An increased incidence of the complications of pre-eclampsia
    3. Neonatal hyperbilirubinemia at high altitude suggested that altitude
    4. Short-term abnormalities in fetal heart rate 

    A survey of Colorado obstetrical care providers yielded consensus that preterm labor and bleeding complications of pregnancy are the most commonly encountered pregnancy complications among high-altitude pregnant visitors. Dehydration, engaging in strenuous exercise before acclimatization, and participation in activities with high risk of trauma are behaviors that may increase the risk of pregnancy complications.

    There are patients with certain high-risk pregnancies who should consider to stay away from not traveling to high altiudes. These include those at risk for premature births (twins, prior preterm birth, placenta previa). If you are concerned whether spending time at high altitude during pregnancy may be harmful, you should discuss with your doctor prior to traveling in pregnancy to a high altitude. 

    Altitude-aggravated illness: Examples from pregnancy and prenatal life
    Annals of Emergency Medicine, Volume 16, Issue 9, September 1987, Pages 965-973
    Lorna Grindlay Moore

    CDC: Travel Information for Pregnant Women