Electrical burns occur when a person is directly exposed to an electrical current. Electrical burns can result from contact with either alternating current (AC) or direct current (DC). Although some electrical burns look minor, they can cause extensive internal damage, especially to the heart, muscles, or brain.
About 1,000 people in the United States die each year from electrical burns. This is a potentially serious condition that requires care from your doctor.
Electrical burns result from accidental contact with exposed parts of electrical appliances or wiring, such as:
Children biting on electrical cords
Poking utensils or other metal objects into electrical outlets or appliances, such as a plugged-in toaster
Failing to shut the power supply before making home repairs or installation
Dropping a plugged-in appliance into water
Occupational accidents due to, for example, electric arcs from high-voltage power lines. (Electric arcs occur when a burst of electricity jumps from one electrical conductor to another, such as flashes of electricity from the wheels of an electrically powered train or where a trolley car connects to an overhead power line.)
The following factor increases your chances of developing electrical burns:
Any exposure to an electrical current
Muscle contraction or pain
Numbness or tingling
Sudden hearing impairment
If you experience any of these symptoms dont assume it is due to an electrical burn. These symptoms may be caused by other, less serious health conditions. If you experience any one of them, consult your doctor.
Electrical burns can cause cardiac arrest, respiratory failure, and/or unconsciousness.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam.
Like other burns, electrical burns have three degrees of severity, each with distinctive symptoms:
First-degree burnsinjure only the outer layer of skin. They are red and painful, and may cause some swelling. The skin turns white when touched.
Second-degree burnsare deeper and more severe. They cause blisters and the skin is very red or splotchy. There may be more significant swelling.
Third-degree burnscause damage to all layers of the skin down to the tissue underneath. The burned skin looks white or charred. These burns may cause little or no painbecause thenerves in the skin are destroyed.
It may be more difficult to diagnosis damage under the skin caused by electrocution. Test may include:
Electrocardiogram to detect rhythm disturbances of the heart
Urine or blood teststo check for severe damage to muscles
Electrical burns require an immediate call to paramedics. If possible, shut off the electrical current from its source (such as unplugging a cord or turning off the circuit breaker). Often, simply turning off the appliance itself will not stop the flow of electricity.
If the current can't be turned off, use a non-conducting object, such as a wooden 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.
Once the victim is free from the source of electricity, his or her airway, breathing and pulses are checked and, if necessary, cardiopulmonary resuscitation efforts are started. The victim is covered with a blanket to maintain body heat and feet are raised above the head.
Ice, butter, or ointments, should not be applied.
Any patient with an electrical burn should be taken to the hospital for further evaluation. Treatment will depend on the severity of the burn and any other associated complications.
To help reduce your chances of an electric burn, take the following steps:
Use child safety plugs in all outlets.
Keep electrical cords out of children's reach.
Avoid electrical hazards by following manufacturer's safety instructions when using electrical appliances. Always turn off circuit breakers before making repairs to wiring.
Avoid using electrical appliances while showering or wet.
Never touch electrical appliances while touching faucets or cold water pipes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Ag Safety Database
City of Virginia Beach, Virginia Beach Emergency Medical Services
University of Virginia Health System
Just the Berries, for Family Physicians
University of Northern British Columbia
Browne, BJ, Gaasch, WR. Electrical injuries and lightning. Emerg Med Clin North Am 1992; 10:211.
Cawley, JC, Homce, GT. Occupational electrical injuries in the United States, 1992-1998, and recommendations for safety research. J Safety Res 2003; 34:241.
Cooper, MA. Electrical and lightning injuries. Emerg Med Clin North Am 1984; 2:489
The American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: http://www.kidshealth.org/PageManager.jsp?dn=familydoctor&lic=44&article_set=21666 . Accessed October 11, 2006.
The US Library of Medicine website. Available at: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000053.htm . Accessed February 12, 2008.
Last reviewed February 2008 by Marcin Chwistek, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.