Inhaling helium - Just hilarious or a health threat?

Originally Published: December 6, 2002 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: December 16, 2010
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Dear Alice,

We have a helium tank in the basement for use with helium balloons. As you probably know, if you put the helium in your mouth, it changes the pitch of your voice to a high-pitched squeal. My son and his friend have discovered this and take great delight in engaging in this for amusement. My gut tells me this is not a good thing. But I'd like some back up. Is this dangerous? If so, how much? Please let me know.

Thank you,
Delighted to have such an informed source to go to...

Dear Delighted to have such an informed source to go to...,

Many adults have childhood memories of breathing in helium from inflated balloons in science class or at a birthday party and hearing their own unrecognizable high-pitched voice that sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks or The Wizard of Oz Munchkins. While it's fun and generally harmless to inhale helium and chirp or squeak, some additional information may help you put this in perspective.

Breathing in pure helium can be risky because it displaces necessary oxygen (as breathing in any gas besides or not mixed with oxygen would do). In other words, since bodies need oxygen, but are getting pure helium instead, the result is suffocation. One breath of pure helium can cause hypoxia (a deficiency of oxygen reaching the body's tissues) and result in dizziness. The next real breath of (oxygenated) air will allow everything to return to normal. That breath will happen automatically once the air from speaking (in a cartoon duck's voice) is expended. If anyone is going to inhale helium this way, it might be wiser to do so while sitting down; that way, if the person becomes dizzy, s/he won't fall and possibly get hurt.

Inhaling continuous breaths of helium one after another starves the body of oxygen. A person will eventually pass out, and perhaps even worse. At most, inhaling once or twice from a helium balloon, separated by deep inhalations of air, will be a way to prevent the harm.

Breathing in helium (or any other gas) from a pressurized tank, as opposed to from a balloon, is dangerous. Inhaling pressurized gas creates the possibility of rupturing a lung or creating an air embolism (gas bubbles in the blood that can cause seizures). In this case, it is not necessarily the helium that is dangerous, but the pressure of the gas itself. Breathing in pressurized oxygen would be just as dangerous.

If you allow your son and his friend to breathe in helium from a balloon on occasion, it might be wise to be with him during the "demonstration," and make sure it does not turn into a habit. Explain to your son and his friend why it is dangerous for them to inhale gas from a tank, and how you need to be present during any "show."

Finally, you might consider locking the canister and moving the helium tank to a place where your son will not have easy access. This way, you can regulate how, when, and in what quantities they inhale on their way down the yellow brick road.