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The Party Addiction: Helium Inhalation

helium-elementMost people are aware of how inhaling helium from a balloon affects one’s voice. Because of that, it is easy to understand why children and even some adults might find it entertaining and fun. In fact, some people have personally inhaled helium themselves for a few laughs at a party, or have seen it done either in person or on movies and television shows. This media exposure and general acceptance has given the impression that inhaling helium is harmless fun; however, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The truth is, inhaling helium can be dangerous or even deadly. For that reason, parents should become aware of what damage helium can do to one’s health.


What Is It?

Helium is a type of natural gas that has no color, smell, or taste. It is often used to fill balloons because it is lighter than air. In fact, it is the second lightest known element in the universe and also the second most abundant element in the universe. Helium can be found in gas deposits located in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma, although there is said to be a shortage of helium on Earth. In addition to its use in party balloons, helium is also used for blimp inflation. In liquid-fueled rockets, helium is used to pressurize the tanks.

Why People Inhale It

balloon-and-heliumHelium is not a drug, nor does it give people a high in the way that drugs do. People inhale or engage, in huffing helium because of the way that it alters the sound of their voice. After inhaling helium one’s voice sounds very similar to the cartoon character Donald Duck. This change in voice can be an appealing reason for kids of all ages to inhale it, even adults. Helium changes the sound of one’s voice because of helium’s density. Helium is less dense than nitrogen; this causes sound-waves to move much faster through it. As a result, this changes the voice’s timbre. Kids who see adults inhale helium, either in person or on television, are more likely to consider it safe to do so themselves.

Dangers of Inhaling

Although breathing in helium may seem as if it is harmless, it can cause dizziness and even asphyxiation. Additional side effects include nausea, vomiting, and/or loss of consciousness. Children may suffer lung damage as a result of inhaling it. Even frostbite may occur when it is inhaled directly from the tank. With each inhalation of helium, oxygen is displaced or removed in favor of the helium. As a result, this causes a severe reduction in the body’s general oxygen levels. In essence, when a person inhales helium, he or she is depriving their body of oxygen. When this happens quickly, a person can pass out without warning. If the individual passes out while standing or in a location that is dangerous, he or she can cause physical harm such as a head injury for example.

Methods of Inhaling

When people inhale helium, they often inhale from a helium-filled balloon. Although taking continuous breaths of helium from a balloon deprives the body of oxygen, it is neither the only method nor the most dangerous one. A fast way of filling balloons is to use a commercial helium balloon-filling system. Often these systems are located in stores such as party supply stores and supermarkets. They are often rented out to people who are having parties, although there are many locations that only fill balloons in-store. These commercial systems are pressurized and designed to quickly fill the balloons. Pressurized systems that are leased out are dangerous as kids and/or adults may attempt to inhale directly from these systems, which have an increased risk of fatality.

Why Commercial Systems Are So Dangerous

lungs-foreign-object-inhaled-or-swallowedWhen people use these highly-pressurized systems it is typically the pressure of the gas that causes the fatal injury versus injury from passing out from oxygen deprivation. The pressure of the helium going into the lungs can cause the air sacs, or alveoli, to erupt. This over-pressurization of the lungs can happen very quickly — within seconds. When the alveoli or air sacs erupt, it causes hemorrhaging in the lungs. As a result, the individual drowns in his or her blood. When this happens it causes instantaneous death. An embolus or embolism may also be sent into the bloodstream causing seizure, stroke or even death. This may occur when a person inhales directly from a tank that is pressurized or inhales too deeply.

When it comes to dangerous substances, drugs are often the greatest concern for parents. Although it is not a drug, helium can be as dangerous when inhaled, as it deprives people of the oxygen that their bodies require. It is particularly dangerous when balloon-filling systems are used. Both adults and children are at risk of falling victim to the dangers of helium; however, education and caution can help lessen those risks.