Inhaling helium — Just hilarious or a health threat?

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…,

As you noted, inhaling helium (a colorless, odorless gas) will give you a high-pitched voice similar to Alvin and the Chipmunks for a short period of time. While the squeaky voice can be a crowd-pleasing party trick, huffing helium isn’t always all fun and games. Put simply, when helium is inhaled, it decreases the supply of oxygen in the body and essentially displaces it. This means that the body is only getting helium rather than the oxygen it needs to produce energy. While a single inhale of helium might only result in a bit of dizziness, there are other risks or side effects involved with inhaling helium.

Along with dizziness, some of the milder side effects include headaches and nausea. More serious side effects include syncope (loss of consciousness, also known as fainting), seizures, and even comatose. Another risk with inhaling helium is that it can leak from the lungs and become trapped in the blood vessels, creating a bubble that can cause an embolism, or the obstruction of an artery. Because embolisms block blood from flowing through the body, they increase risk of stroke and heart attack. There have even been reported deaths as a result of excessive or prolonged helium use, either by accident or due to suicide, though it's still rare. These deaths were caused by anoxia, which occurs when both the brain and body are completely deprived of oxygen and shut down as a result. 

Besides the direct physical risks of inhaling helium, it can also be addictive. While many folks, as mentioned earlier, might only inhale helium from a balloon to change the sound of their voices, plenty of others do so for the purposes of getting high. Helium is an inhalant or a volatile gas that produces a vapor that can get the individual high if inhaled. After it's inhaled and absorbed by the lungs, the effects of an inhalant can be felt within seconds, making the individual feel excited or happy, similar to feeling drunk. However, because the sensation only lasts a few minutes, many users wind up inhaling helium for hours in an attempt to maintain that high, putting themselves at a much higher risk of injury or even death in the process. As is the case with many other inhalants such as nitrous oxide (also known as laughing gas), computer cleaner, and nitrites, helium is used recreationally by young people, primarily teenagers, and is often referred to as whippets, air blast, snappers, or hippie crack. 

Another possible risk to consider is the way helium is ingested. Given the size of a helium tank in comparison to a balloon, inhaling directly from the tank could cause more helium to fill the lungs at one time, and in turn, more oxygen to leave the body. As a result, the onset of side effects could be faster and put your son and his friend at a greater risk than inhaling with a balloon, also known as “ballooning.” However, “ballooning” still poses the same risks as any other method of inhalation. If you're concerned about your son's use of helium, you might think about keeping the canister out of reach somewhere so that he and his friends won’t have such direct access to helium, regardless of their motivations.

Last updated Dec 24, 2021
Originally published Dec 06, 2002

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