You inhale helium from a balloon, and almost as if by magic, you sound like a cartoon chipmunk. Hilarrrious.
Harmless as it may seem, though, inhaling helium can be dangerous — deadly, in fact. There are numerous case reports of serious injury and even death caused by helium inhalation.
When you inhale helium, it displaces oxygen. This means that as you inhale, your body is only getting helium.
Oxygen plays a role in every function of your body. Anytime you don’t get enough of it, you’re putting yourself at risk. Many of the risks are the same as with other inhalants.
Typically, inhaling a single breath of helium from a balloon will have the desired, voice-altering effect. It might also cause a bit of dizziness.
That said, there’s always the potential for other effects, including:
Inhaling helium from a balloon isn’t likely to cause major health issues or kill you, but it’s not impossible. There have been news reports of some folks, particularly young children, dying from asphyxiation after inhaling helium from a balloon.
The majority of serious health issues and deaths related to helium inhalation involve inhaling helium from a pressurized tank. These are the same tanks used to fill helium balloons at events or party supply stores.
Tanks not only hold a lot more helium than your everyday party balloon, but they also release the helium with much more force.
The more pure helium you inhale, the longer your body is without crucial oxygen. Breathing in pure helium can cause death by asphyxiation in just minutes.
Inhaling helium from a pressurized tank can also cause a gas or air embolism, which is a bubble that becomes trapped in a blood vessel, blocking it. The blood vessels can rupture and hemorrhage.
Finally, the helium can also enter your lungs with enough force to cause your lungs to rupture.
If you’ve inhaled a bit of helium from a balloon and are just feeling a little fuzzy or dizzy, or have a mild headache, you’re probably fine. Have a seat, breathe normally, and wait it out.
If your symptoms are more severe or if you’ve lost consciousness, have someone take you to the nearest emergency room — better safe than sorry.
If you’ve huffed helium from a pressurized container, your symptoms could be a bit more severe. Again, if you feel fine other than a bit of dizziness, you probably don’t have anything to worry about.
Watch for symptoms that could be a sign of more serious issues in the coming minutes and hours.
If you or someone else experiences any of the following after inhaling helium, call 911 right away:
- low blood pressure
- trouble breathing
- irregular heartbeat
- blurred vision
- chest pain
- weakness or paralysis in one or more limbs
- bluish lips or skin (cyanosis)
- coughing up blood
- loss of consciousness
Not necessarily, but it’s important to remember that doing so isn’t without risk. That said, you should definitely avoid giant balloons and pressurized tanks.
You should also steer clear of all helium if you have a lung or heart condition.
Stick with small party balloons if you must and follow these tips:
- Do it sitting down in case you get lightheaded or pass out to reduce your risk of injury.
- Make sure someone else is with you who can help if symptoms do occur.
- Don’t let children inhale from balloons. Not only are they more susceptible to having a bad reaction, but they’re also more prone to inhaling parts of the balloon or choking.
A one-off breath of helium from a small balloon for a laugh is unlikely to be catastrophic, but it can cause dizziness and make you pass out.
Have a seat so you don’t have far to fall and avoid channeling your inner munchkin by inhaling from a helium tank or giant balloon.
Even a few seconds without oxygen can have serious effects.
Adrienne Santos-Longhurst is a freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and lifestyle for more than a decade. When she’s not holed up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking around her beach town with husband and dogs in tow, or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddleboard.