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Is Helium Harmful to Children?

by Rebekah Richards

Helium is a colorless, odorless gas often used to fill balloons. Some people intentionally inhale helium to make their voices sound like that of a high-pitched cartoon character. Although it can be entertaining to have a silly, squeaky voice, helium inhalation can be dangerous and even deadly, especially if you inhale gas directly from a pressurized canister. Talking to your children about the dangers of helium inhalation can prevent a party from turning into a tragedy.

How Helium Works

Helium is less dense than normal air, which makes it possible for helium-filled balloons to float. If you inhale helium, your voice becomes high and squeaky for a breath or two. This occurs because helium's lower density causes your vocal cords to vibrate faster, creating a higher-pitched sound, according to Michigan State University. However, inhaling helium can be dangerous, especially for children.

Dangers of Helium

Inhaling helium displaces oxygen from your lungs, which can cause dizziness, falls and even suffocation. Suffocation is more likely if you climb inside a giant helium balloon than if you suck air from a balloon, but even a few breaths from a balloon can be dangerous. Helium can also damage lung tissue in children and cause sudden sniffing death syndrome, which is a form of cardiac arrest, according to the Virginia Department of Education website. Like other inhalants, injury or death can occur the first time or any time a person inhales helium.

Dangers of Pressurized Canisters

Helium is even more dangerous if children inhale it directly from a pressurized canister or tank rather than from a balloon. Along with the dangers of suffocation, inhaling any pressurized gas -- even oxygen -- can cause lung rupturing or air embolisms, which are dangerous bubbles in the blood. At least two cases of stroke have also been reported after helium inhalation, according to a 2000 article in The Western Journal of Medicine.

Discouraging Helium Inhalation

Children may believe that breathing in helium is a harmless party trick; after all, commercials for multiple prominent companies have featured characters breathing helium, and kids may have seen their friends or even other adults inhale helium without being harmed. However, explaining the dangers of helium inhalation -- and stressing that injury or death can occur the first time they try it -- can help discourage your kids from inhalation. Finally, if you have helium canisters, store them in a secure location inaccessible to children.

About the Author

Rebekah Richards is a professional writer with work published in the "Atlanta Journal-Constitution," "Brandeis University Law Journal" and online at tolerance.org. She graduated magna cum laude from Brandeis University with bachelor's degrees in creative writing, English/American literature and international studies. Richards earned a master's degree at Carnegie Mellon University.

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