From giggles to gasps — Can excessive laughter kill you?

Members of a laughter club participate in a laughing exercise in Mumbai, India, in May 2014. Don’t tell them that India ranks quite low on the United Nations’ happiness survey..—Reuters

Can you die from laughter? It’s a question that may evoke a chuckle itself, but the reality, though highly unlikely, suggests there’s a slim possibility. 

According to doctors, there have been documented cases of laughter-related deaths, albeit rare.

One potential risk lies in the heart, where an intense laugh could trigger “laughter-induced syncope,” causing a rapid drop in blood pressure and, in extreme cases, a temporary loss of consciousness. Dr Todd Cohen, chief of cardiology, explains, “When you laugh, you’re moving your chest up and down, changing the pressure in the thoracic cavity, affecting the vagus nerve, which can lead to lightheadedness or, very rarely, passing out.”

The first documented case of laughter-induced syncope was in 1997, earning the condition the nickname “the Seinfeld syncope.” While the risk of death from this syncope is minimal, there’s concern about potential harm from fainting spells, especially in hazardous situations.

Laughter can also impact the respiratory system. High emotions like deep amusement can increase breathing rates, triggering asthma symptoms. A 2009 study found that over 40% of asthma patients experienced laughter-induced asthma. In severe cases, asthma attacks could be fatal without immediate access to an inhaler.

Theoretically, laughter might lead to laryngospasm or asphyxiation, but Dr Megan Kamath, a cardiologist, deems these causes of death as slim possibilities. In the majority of situations, laughter is not just harmless but also beneficial for health. 

Dr Cohen emphasises its positive effects, stating, “I think laughter and humour can help patients going forward with their condition, putting a different perspective on their medical problem and keeping them more present in the moments and enjoying life.” 

Studies support the positive impact of laughter on reducing anxiety, lowering stress hormone levels, increasing dopamine release, improving oxygen flow and reducing inflammation in patients with coronary artery disease.

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