What Causes the Change in Voice When Inhaling Helium?

If you’re like many children, you’ve probably witnessed — and heard! — someone inhaling helium from a balloon and speaking in a humorous voice. Some individuals who do this may sound like a duck, while others may resemble a squeaky mouse. What exactly is happening in this situation?

The sound of your natural voice is influenced by several factors. Apart from the air you breathe, the shape of your mouth, throat, nasal passages, tongue, and lips all contribute to producing the distinct sound that is your voice.

Your voice originates from the larynx, which is commonly referred to as the voice box. Inside the larynx are your vocal cords. These two folded mucous membranes vibrate when air passes through them. These vibrations resonate throughout your throat, nasal passages, mouth, tongue, and lips, resulting in the sounds you produce when you speak.

The air you inhale consists mainly of nitrogen and oxygen. Helium, on the other hand, is much less dense than regular air. This is why helium is used to make balloons float.

Due to its lower density, sound travels over twice as fast through helium compared to regular air. When you inhale helium, your voice travels much faster across your vocal cords. This leads to the comical sounds you produce when speaking after inhaling helium.

Some people believe that helium alters the pitch of your voice. However, in reality, your vocal cords vibrate at the same frequency. Helium actually affects the sound quality of your voice (its tone or timbre) by enabling sound to travel faster and consequently changing the resonances of your vocal tract, making it more responsive to high-frequency sounds.

Helium is the second most abundant element in the known universe (hydrogen being the most abundant). Inhaling a few breaths of helium is typically not harmful. Breathing in a large amount of helium, however, can be dangerous.

Extended inhalation of helium can result in insufficient oxygen in the lungs and bloodstream. This can lead to brain injury and, in rare cases, even death. Inhaling a small amount of helium from a balloon is generally not a significant concern, though.

In fact, helium can be beneficial in certain situations. Doctors have occasionally used a mixture of helium and oxygen to treat chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Helium’s lower density can help improve airflow in the lungs of individuals with COPD.

If you’ve ever inhaled helium and heard the change in your voice, you may have noticed that the effect wears off quickly. This is because the effect only lasts as long as there is helium around your vocal cords. Once regular air replaces the helium, your voice returns to its normal state.

Give It a Try

We hope today’s Wonder of the Day didn’t consist of too much empty talk. Continue learning more about helium by engaging in the following activities with a friend or family member:

  • Have you ever experimented with inhaling helium from a balloon? How did it alter the sound of your voice? Some individuals claim to have sounded like a duck, while others believed they sounded like a squeaky mouse. What are your thoughts on how your voice sounds on helium? Would you prefer to have that voice all the time? Explain your reasons.
  • Request an adult friend or family member to accompany you on a visit to a local party supply store. Engage in a conversation with an employee about the utilization of helium to inflate balloons. How does helium function differently compared to regular air? Have they ever attempted inhaling helium to modify their voices? How long do helium-filled balloons remain afloat? If possible, inquire if you can assist in inflating a balloon or two! Enjoy the opportunity to have a hands-on experience with helium!
  • Feeling up for a challenge? Compose a fictional narrative about the occasion when you utilized helium to alter your voice. What was your motivation behind doing so? Were you a secret agent attempting to conceal your identity? Perhaps you were an aspiring singing sensation aiming to create a uniquely special debut. Or maybe you were attempting to imitate the sound of a duck or a mouse. Let your creativity run wild and come up with an imaginative explanation for why you would use helium to change your voice. Once you’re done, share your story with friends and family members. What are their thoughts?

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