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Name:  chris l balsano
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Date: 1999 

Why does one have a squeaky voice after inhaling helium from balloon?


Helium is an inert gas which we can inhale, at least briefly, without dying. (I wouldnt suggest trying this with hydrogen for example.)

The mechanism is that, first, sound is produced by our vocal cords through vibration. The air around our vocal cords is vibrated, and we interpret this as sound. Helium is a gas much lighter that the mixture of gases we call 'air', which is comprised mostly of nitrogen, oxygen, and a few lesser gases. Our vocal cords can vibrate faster in a helium environment than in a heavier 'air' environment. The faster vibration causes the higher pitch we hear. As the helium is depleted and replaced by regular air, the 'squeakiness' disappears.

Naturally you do not want to inhale helium regularly. Our health is best on a diet of 'regular air'.

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Up-date Spring 2010
It apparently needs to be pointed out that the resonant frequencies of the vocal tract that change, not the frequency of the vocal cords. This information has surfaced in recent times and trumps the 15 year old article above.

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