What Happens To Your Body When You Inhale Helium?

No doubt you've seen it done at a party. A person slurps on the end of a helium-filled balloon like a straw, and for the next minute or so, their voice sounds like that of a furry woodland cartoon critter. But what exactly is going on inside the body when we inhale helium that prompts our voice to take on a life of its own?

When moving through oxygen, sound waves travel at 1,128 feet per second (via Live Science). However, that travel time nearly triples when we inhale helium because helium molecules are much lighter than those of the everyday air we breathe. When those sound waves in our vocal tract pick up the pace, resonant frequencies also increase, which affects our natural vocal quality. In essence, when we inhale helium, it boosts the natural high-pitch elements of our voice over our low-pitch vocal elements. Therefore, it's not so much that helium changes our voice, but rather amplifies certain portions of what's already there.

But inhaling helium can affect the body in more ways than just vocal quality. Rather, there are ways in which doing so can potentially be dangerous to the body.

Your body becomes deprived of oxygen

The inhalation of helium begins to affect the body within moments. When you take in a breath of helium, your body isn't receiving any oxygen. When this happens, not only is the body not getting any intake of fresh oxygen, but the oxygen supply in our blood rapidly begins to deplete as well, as outlined in a 2006 article published in Injury Prevention. So much so, that it only takes seconds for our oxygen stores to plummet to potentially dangerous levels after inhaling helium. The brain, for example, can only withstand approximately five to six seconds without oxygen before a loss of consciousness sets in (via HSC Public Health Agency).

According to a 2021 study published in Clinical Toxicology, rates of helium-inhalation injuries in the U.S. have grown over the years. While an estimated 99 injuries took place between 2000 and 2004, that number grew to an estimated 918 helium-inhalation injuries between 2015 and 2019. The most common symptom experienced by nearly 69% of patients was syncope, or loss of consciousness. Other symptoms or injuries experienced included non-concussion head injury, dizziness, lightheadedness, contusion, and concussion. 

When to seek medical care

In some instances, inhaling helium can be fatal. This is particularly true if one were to use a pressurized helium tank, as opposed to a balloon. Healthline reports that in addition to the increased risk of asphyxiation, inhaling helium from a pressurized tank can also place us at greater risk for a gas or air embolism, which can prompt a blood vessel rupture and possible hemorrhage. Although this risk is not as high with the inhalation of helium from a small birthday balloon, you still stand the risk of dizziness or fainting.

If someone around you experiences mild side effects after inhaling helium, expose them to fresh air as soon as possible, advises the HSC Public Health Agency. If symptoms do not subside, medical attention may be needed to administer oxygen, so be sure to seek emergency care. Additionally, if you or someone around you exhibits symptoms such as loss of consciousness, irregular heart rate, chest pain, seizures, coughing up blood, blurred vision, low blood pressure, or any other emergency symptoms after inhaling helium, be sure to seek medical care right away.