A party game that can kill

Feb 23, 2012 at 1:15 p.m. ET

The death of an Oregon teenager after inhaling helium at a party sheds light on yet another potential risk that parents need to address.

Teen dies after inhaling helium

The death of an Oregon teenager after inhaling helium at a party sheds light on yet another potential risk that parents need to address.

Raising teenagers is never easy. The challenges are numerous and changing all the time. Even the most aware and sensitive parent can inadvertently overlook potential hazards that seem to morph quickly from one risk to another. The death of 14-year-old Ashley Long from Eagle Point, Oregon points out a dangerous activity that few parents would think to warn their teens about: inhaling helium.

Unexpected danger

While attending a party that allegedly included alcohol and marijuana, Long was among many teens who inhaled the helium through a pressurized tank. She then passed out and died soon after.

Most of us have casually sucked helium out of a balloon to amuse friends with a squeaky, cartoon-like voice but few of us are aware of the danger helium presents. Dr. Mark Morocco, associate professor of emergency medicine at the Ronald Reagan Medical Center in Los Angeles, tells the Associated Press that "what happens is similar to when a scuba diver surfaces too quickly. A gas bubble gets into the bloodstream, perhaps through some kind of tear in a blood vessel, and can block blood flow to the brain, causing a stroke."

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Rare but real risk

Although relatively rare, this isn't the first time a teen has died after inhaling helium. In 2010, 17-year-old Micah David from Riverside, California was found dead after doing just that. At the time, his father, Tony David, said he wanted to warn parents and teens about the dangers of inhaling this gas. Another young girl, 13-year-old Jordan McDowell from Ireland, also died after inhaling helium in 2010.

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Parenting radar

Most parents want to make sure their kids are prepared to face the challenges of the teen years, which often includes identifying and teaching them to avoid risks such as drugs, alcohol, driving while intoxicated, hanging out with the wrong crowd and posting inappropriate pictures online. But inhaling helium isn't usually on the radar.

"I wouldn't have thought to warn my daughter about helium," says Nicole a mom from California. "Sometimes I feel like there are just too many things out there to warn her about. It's tough to keep up."

But keep up, we must. Rather than identify every potential danger in our child's life, it may be more helpful to teach her to analyze every situation critically. Of course, critical thinking is greatly hampered when drugs and/or alcohol are present.

"It may sound dramatic but danger is literally lurking around every corner," says Kim, a mom from Colorado. "You think you prepare your kids to face the temptations out there but once their judgment is clouded, you never know what's going to happen. It's scary!"

Find out how to keep teens safe without nagging >>

Always vigilant

Ultimately, the tragic death of Ashley Long serves to remind parents that constant communication is truly one of the most powerful tools we have to keep our kids safe in a world that has an endless array of deadly weapons in its arsenal.

Tell Us

What do you think? How do you prepare your teen to face unexpected, and potentially deadly, situations?

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