Electrical burns and injuries are the result electrical currents passing through the body. Temporary or permanent damage can occur to the skin, tissues, and major organs. Extent of the damage depends on the strength and duration of the electrical current.
Electrical burns and injuries result from accidental contact with exposed parts of electrical appliances, wiring, or lightning strikes.
Appliance or wiring injuries may occur when:
Occupational accidents can occur from electric arcs from high-voltage power lines. Electric arcs occur when a burst of electricity jumps from one electrical conductor to another, creating bright flashes.
Factors that may increase your chance of an electrical burn or injury include:
Symptoms will depend on the amount of electricity that passed through the body and length of time the current was in contact with the body.
An electrical shock can cause severe muscle contractions. These contractions can causes falls or injuries, including broken bones. Other symptoms include:
The electrical current can also disrupt certain functions in the body which may cause:
Electricity can also cause cardiac arrest , respiratory failure, and/or unconsciousness.
Electrical burns and injuries will be diagnosed based on events and symptoms. A physical exam will be done.
Like other burns, electrical burns have 3 degrees of severity, each with distinctive symptoms:
Classification of Skin Burns
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It may be more difficult to diagnosis damage under the skin caused by electricity. Tests may include:
If possible, cut the power source by throwing a switch or circuit breaker, or unplugging the power. Do not endanger yourself. Call for emergency medical services right away. Treatment will depend on the extent of injuries.
Treatment will depend on the individual's response to the electric shock and what injuries were caused.
Less severe symptoms may only require observation and time to fade. Some symptoms can linger over long periods of time.
Severe shocks that have caused the heart to stop, a loss of consciousness, seizures or severe injury will need emergency help. Emergency response and first aid must be done quickly to restore breathing and prevent further injury or death. Some emergency steps may include:
Surgery may also be needed to care for deeper burns or repair some wounds.
Some complications from electrical injuries can have a delayed onset. Observation and future testing may be needed for symptoms that develop after the incident. Later complications may arise from heart, kidney, or nerve damage.
To help reduce your chances of electrical burns and injuries:
Burn Prevention Network
Safe Kids Worldwide
Electrical injury. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116526/Electrical-injury. Updated August 26, 2013. Accessed September 27, 2016.
Electrical injuries. The Merck Manual Professional Edition website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/injuries_poisoning/electrical_and_lightning_injuries/electrical_injuries.html. Updated March 2014. Accessed November 3, 2014.
Fire safety. Nemours Kid's Health website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/parent/firstaid_safe/home/fire.html. Updated July 2011. Accessed November 3, 2014.
Fish RM, Geddes LA. Conduction of electrical current to and through the human body: A review. Eplasty. 2009;9:e44.
Lightning injuries. The Merck Manual Professional Edition website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/injuries_poisoning/electrical_and_lightning_injuries/lightning_injuries.html. Updated March 2014. Accessed November 3, 2014.
Sanford A, Gamelli RL. Lightning and thermal injuries. handb Clin neurol. 2014;120:981-986.
Last reviewed December 2014 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.
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