Posted: Mon, February 20 2012 at 8:03 PM, Updated: Mon, February 20 2012 at 8:36 PM
Inhaling helium may not seem like it's dangerous but in fact it can be deadly.
Dr. Petey Laohaburanakit, a pulmonologist at Rogue Valley Medical Center said a breath or two or helium is not typically dangerous. But too much of it, too soon could mean a speedy death.
Police on inhaling helium: "It is dangerous."
This weekend, 14-year-old Ashley Long of Eagle Point died after police say she partied with friends, drinking alcohol and inhaling helium from a pressurized tank.
Lieutenant Mike Budreau of the Medford Police said he thinks it was the helium that killed her.
"It is dangerous and obviously in this case specifically we believe contributed significantly to a 14-year-old losing her life for nothing," said Budreau.
What doctors say about helium
According to doctors, the gas itself isn't dangerous. It's when people take too much of it in that they can suffocate themselves.
"The more helium you inhale, the less oxygen you will receive, so if you continue to inhale helium continuously, you get no oxygen," said Laohaburanakit.
When helium is inhaled it displaces the oxygen in a person's body. Thus, oxygen can't get into the blood stream, and can't get up to the brain.
If enough helium is inhaled, it can cause brain injury or in the worst case scenario, death.
Possible death "within minutes" of helium inhalation
Laohaburanakit said inhaling it from a pressurized tank makes all the difference, quickly robbing your lungs of oxygen, and possibly causing damage to lung tissue.
"You could have lung rupture from the high pressure system or you could get gas bubbles in the blood stream that go to the brain and cause stroke-like symptoms."
A deadly mixture
It's an already risky practice, made more dangerous when combined with drugs or alcohol, which Laohaburanakit said slows reaction time.
"They may continue to inhale helium for too much, too long"
Why inhale helium?
Because helium is considered an inert gas and doesn't alter the body chemically, inhaling it does not result in a high. But the resulting change in voice or feeling of suffocation might be reasons some people do it.
While deaths from helium are uncommon, according to research, when people do suffocate from helium, they do not struggle to breathe.
A doctor's warning
It hasn't been confirmed yet exactly how 14-year-old Ashley Long died. Her autopsy is expected to happen soon.