Inhaling Helium Can Be Deadly

Deborah Brauser


March 15, 2012

March 15, 2012 — Although many people consider inhaling helium from a balloon in order to talk in a squeaky cartoon-like voice to be harmless fun, the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition (NIPC) is warning that the practice can be quite harmful — and even deadly.

According to the NIPC, huffing helium can cut off oxygen supply or can cause an embolism if a person inhales too deeply. In addition, pressurized tank gas can cause lungs to rupture.

Dangerous inhalants now include helium, NIDA says.

At a press conference, representatives from NIPC, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and other national organizations came together to discuss the serious dangers posed by helium, as well as by other inhalants commonly found in homes.

"Prevention is key to reducing inhalant use and needs to involve parents, communities, and teachers," David Shurtleff, PhD, acting deputy director of NIDA, said at the event.

Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), added that homes "are too often the source of dangerous drugs of abuse" for young people.

"Whether it's prescription drugs or household products stored under the kitchen sink, parents should remember that just because something is legal doesn't mean it is safe," said Kerlikowske.

Other press conference participants included the parents of Ashley Earp, a 14-year-old girl who died last month after inhaling helium from a pressurized tank.

Helium Deaths

Although the federal government does not currently collect statistics on deaths from helium huffing, the state of Florida does. They report that in 2010, approximately 20% of the 38 inhalant deaths in the state involved helium.

"While 9 victims is a small number, this is 1 year of deaths in 1 state," the NIPC said in a release.

"Helium is very dangerous, and nobody knows about it. Right now a 4-year-old can buy a balloon filled with helium and inhale it. They are handing them out without warning," said Justin Earp, Ashley's stepfather.

Media has also played a significant role in promoting the "fun" that comes from this practice. The NIPC reports that until recently, a game site had videos on YouTube starring Gina, the helium-huffing giraffe. This character encouraged kids to videotape themselves inhaling helium and talking funny, and then to upload the videos.

Other companies that have demonstrated this practice in their commercials over the years include Toys R Us, Hallmark Cards, Mars Candy, Geico, and FedEx.

Brian Dyak, president of the Entertainment Industries Council Inc, noted at the press conference that just 1 of these depictions can reach millions of viewers, and social media can pass its message along to an even wider audience.

"Educating children on the dangers of inhalants, and adults on the consequences of abuse of products in their own home, is an obligation we have within our society," said Dyak, who is urging members of the entertainment field to spread awareness about this issue.

Sending the Wrong Message

"Unknowing adults demonstrate and often provide helium to kids at parties, or science teachers use it in classes to demonstrate the effects of a gas on vocal cords. This normalizing of huffing needs to stop, and all of us can play a role in that," added Harvey Weiss, executive director of the NIPC, at the press conference.

Beforehand, he told Medscape Medical News that adults need to be aware that encouraging kids to inhale helium "is sending a message that it's okay to put any type of gas into your body. And we want to prevent that from happening."

"I would tell clinicians that they definitely need to educate their patients about this, but they need to educate themselves about it first. I just don't think there are enough people that understand the level of concern that we have with this," said Weiss.

"Whether inhaling from a balloon or inhaling from tank, doing this can prove dangerous or even fatal."

In addition to helium, the press conference participants stressed the dangers of misusing all inhalants. According to NIDA's Web site, these often include household products containing volatile solvents, aerosols, or gases that can provide mind-altering effects from their breathable chemical vapors.

According to Weiss, there are about 1400 of these types of products currently available. Although he is not sure which is the most popular right now, he did cite computer dust cleaner or "canned air" as a definite contender.

"But that may fade and something else might take its place. So we want to make sure people are aware of how dangerous all these products can be. With any type of chemical or gas, once it's misused or not used the way it was intended, the consequences can be fatal," said Weiss.

He also mentioned that so-called "Whip-its" are still being used. These small canisters of nitrous oxide are often sold at gourmet food stores, as the product can be used to make whipped cream, and at head shops and tattoo parlors.

"I think parents and clinicians need to talk to children about each of these being a poison, which it is if ingested. And a public health campaign does work."

Weiss reported that 2 years after running an awareness campaign in Texas, the NIPC has seen a 64% reduction in inhalant use by high school kids and a 48% reduction by elementary school-aged children. The state of Minnesota also saw a more than 50% overall reduction in inhalant use by children after they started their own campaign.

"So given this information, young people can make the appropriate choices for themselves. It's all about education. There just needs to be a concerted effort to deal with inhalants."

More information on inhalants is available on the Web sites of NIDA, ONDCP, and the NIPC. In addition, the NIPC offers free printed materials and videos.

The NIPC receives support from NIDA and from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.