Electrical injury

Alternative names
Electrical shock

Definition
An electrical injury can occur to the skin or internal organs when a person is directly exposed to an electrical current.

Considerations

The human body is a good conductor of electricity. Direct contact with electrical current can be fatal. While some electrical burns look minor, there still may be serious internal damage, especially to the heart, muscles, or brain.

About 1,000 people die annually of electric shock in the United States.

The outcome of an electric shock to an individual depends on the intensity of the voltage to which the person was exposed, the route of the current through the body, the victim’s state of health, and the speed and adequacy of the treatment.

Electric current can cause injury in three main ways:

     
  • Cardiac arrest due to the electrical effect on the heart.  
  • Muscle, nerve, and tissue destruction from a current passing through the body.  
  • Thermal burns from contact with the electrical source.

Causes

     
  • Accidental contact with exposed parts of electrical appliances or wiring  
  • Young children biting or chewing on electrical cords, or poking metal objects into the electrical outlet  
  • Lightning  
  • Flashing of electric arcs from high-voltage power lines  
  • Machinery or occupational-related exposures

Symptoms

Symptoms may include:

     
  • Skin burns  
  • Numbness, tingling  
  • Weakness  
  • Muscle contraction  
  • Muscular pain  
  • Bone fractures  
  • Headache  
  • Hearing impairment  
  • Seizures  
  • Heart arrhythmias  
  • Cardiac arrest  
  • Respiratory failure  
  • Unconsciousness

First Aid

1. If safely possible, shut off the electrical current. Unplug the cord, remove the fuse from the fuse box, or turn off the circuit breakers if possible. Often, simply turning off the appliance itself will not stop the flow of electricity.

2. Call for medical help.

3. If the current can’t be turned off, use a non-conducting object, such as a broom, chair, rug, or rubber doormat to push the victim away from the source of the current. Don’t use a wet or metal object. If possible, stand on something dry and non-conducting, such as a mat or folded newspapers. Do not attempt to rescue a victim near active high-voltage lines.

4. Once the victim is free from the source of electricity, check the victim’s airway, breathing, and pulse. If either has stopped or seems dangerously slow or shallow, initiate first aid (CPR).

5. If the victim has a burn, remove any clothing that comes off easily, and rinse the burned area in cool running water until the pain subsides. Give first aid for burns.

6. If the victim is faint, pale, or shows other signs of shock, lay the victim down, with the head slightly lower than the trunk of the body and the legs elevated, and cover the person with a warm blanket or a coat.

7. Stay with the victim until medical help arrives.

8. Electrical injury is frequently associated with explosions or falls that can cause additional traumatic injuries, including both obvious external injuries and concealed internal injuries. Avoid moving the victim’s head or neck if a spinal injury is suspected. Administer appropriate first aid as needed for other wounds or fractures.

Do Not

     
  • DO NOT touch the victim with your bare hands while the person is still in contact with the source of electricity.  
  • DO NOT remove dead skin or break blisters if the victim has acquired burns.  
  • DO NOT apply ice, butter, ointments, medications, fluffy cotton dressings, or adhesive bandages to a burn.  
  • DO NOT touch the skin of someone who is being electrocuted.  
  • DO NOT get within 20 feet of someone who is being electrocuted by high-voltage electrical current until the power is turned off.  
  • DO NOT move a victim of electrical injury unless there is immediate danger.

Call immediately for emergency medical assistance if

Call for emergency medical help if the victim is unconscious, confused, has difficulty breathing, has skin or mouth burns, or was in contact with a high-voltage source.

Prevention

     
  • Use child safety plugs in all outlets.  
  • Keep electrical cords out of children’s reach.  
  • Teach your children about the dangers of electricity.  
  • Avoid electrical hazards at home and at work. Always follow manufacturer’s safety instructions when using electrical appliances.  
  • Parents of small children should put safety guards on all electrical outlets, and keep children away from electrical devices.  
  • Avoid using electrical appliances while showering or wet.  
  • Never touch electrical appliances while touching faucets or cold water pipes.

 

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 8, 2012
by Armen E. Martirosyan, M.D.

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All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.