Does Altitude Affect Diabetes?

Going on a trip might mean planning more than itineraries.


Traveling itself is an involved process. Between scheduling transportation, figuring out room and board, and choosing activities, organizing a trip is hard work. The work is further added upon when diabetes is involved, as you have to plan for medication, diet, and movement far more than someone whose blood sugar is easily stabilized.

Your Body and Altitude

There are numerous physiological changes that occur as your body interacts with higher altitudes, but perhaps the most significant change is the level of oxygen available. In a typical person, shifts in altitude will not overpower and overwhelm your body’s ability to take in enough oxygen and utilize if properly. For diabetes patients, however, the reality is a little bit different.

Diabetes and Altitude

Because the body of a diabetic is not quite as efficient in many areas due to its need to divert energy elsewhere (think an additional need for insulin and glucose changes), your body may struggle to properly deliver enough oxygen to the rest of your body. This is particularly true of individuals with nerve damage.

Nerve damage renders your body’s ability to recognize certain danger signs either severely impaired or altogether absent, which could lead to hypothermia and other life threatening conditions. Some studies have also shown that retinopathy actually worsens in higher altitudes, making them less-than-ideal places for those with diabetes to live on a permanent basis.

Finally, altitude is problematic in its ability to fiddle with glucometers. One study found that glucometers were consistently off by as much as 1% per 1000 feet above sea level, placing some diabetes patients in the path of danger for hyper or hypoglycemia in areas with high altitude, or during plane rides.

How to Mitigate the Effects

If you live in a high-altitude area, check your body for sores frequently, and make note of any loss of sensation in your extremities. Eye exams should also be done regularly to catch the development of retinopathy and prevent additional damage. All of these changes can be added to your daily routines, and should not be a huge hassle or inconvenience.

If you are visiting a high-altitude location or are getting onto a plane, first and foremost remember to check your blood sugar and calibrate your GCM before you are on the plane. Knowing that your numbers might not be 100% accurate, keep a close eye on your food as you eat, and make a special note of any peculiar or uncomfortable sensations you experience. Existing sores or circulation concerns might grow more intense, but should go back to normal following your return to a lower altitude.


NCBI. Accessed 10/12/17.

Joslin. Accessed 10/12/17.