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Electrical burns or injuries from holiday lights send around 14,000 Americans to emergency departments each year. While the glitter and shine of twinkling lights is magical, an old string of lights with a bad wire—especially coupled with rain or snow—can cause more damage than you might think.
It only takes a little...
A string of holiday lights can generate 4,000 mA of electricity, but as little as 200 mA can be fatal. Defibrillators used to deliver shocks during cardiac arrest can send about 17,000 mA through your body.
It doesn't take much electricity to cause burns or injury, and most household appliances and electronics deliver a bigger punch than you might think. A string of 100 miniature lights can generate about 4,000 milliamperes (mA) of electrical current. While you would barely feel 1 mA of electrical current, 20 mA is enough to stop your breathing and 100 mA can cause fatal heart arrhythmias.
This article will explore what an electrical burn or injury is like, and what you can do to get help.
How Does Electricity Affect Our Bodies?
About 1,000 Americans die and another 30,000 are hurt each year from electrical injuries. While many of these occur in the workplace, electrical burns can happen at home, too. Most home electrical injuries and burns happen in children and teens.
The human body naturally creates its own form of electricity to transport nerve signals from cell to cell. But this means that other forms of electricity not made by our bodies can move quickly through our tissues, too—and that's usually not a good thing.
The body's own electrical currents are created by the charges of the elements in it, such as potassium and calcium. When outside electrical currents are introduced to your body, they interrupt the natural balance. It doesn't take much, either—even the smallest charge can derail your body's electric system and cause muscle paralysis or even death.
You are at risk of injury every time you come into contact with electricity. Most electrical devices and appliances have some sort of protection built into them, usually in the form of a protective covering that goes between you and the current running through the device.
When these currents do come in contact with your body—often through a split wire or other malfunction—they can create a host of symptoms from a small zap to severe injury or death. Symptoms of electrical burns and injuries depend on things like:
- The type and strength of voltage
- How long you were exposed to the current
- How the current came in contact with your body
- Your overall health
Burns from electrical devices look similar to other burns, but they can usually be distinguished by contact points and cause other damage you can't see. For example, if you were burned after touching a bad wire, you can have burns on your hands from the initial contact, inside your body where the current traveled through your tissues, and wherever the current left your body. Usually, the current will leave at a grounding point, often on the feet.
Visible burns from the initial electric contact and the exit of the current are one problem, but electrical burns and injuries in the body can impact any tissue the current travels through. This can include your nervous system and heart.
Some common symptoms that can occur with electrical burns or injuries include:
- Burned or broken skin
- Broken bones
- Difficulty swallowing
- Vision changes
- Hearing problems
- Muscle spasms or pain
- Numbness or tingling
- Loss of consciousness
- Irregular heartbeat
- Breathing problems
It's also possible to be injured by electricity and have no visible symptoms at all, especially when the electrical injury happens in water.
Is It Safe to Help?
Your first instinct may be to run and help someone who has just been electrocuted, but DON'T. Electrical currents can travel from one person to another, and you may also become injured while trying to help someone who has an electrical burn or injury.
If you see someone who has been burned or injured by electricity:
- Do not get within 20 feet of anyone being injured by a high-voltage device.
- Do not touch the person with your bare hands if their body is still touching the electric source.
- Do not move the person unless they are still at risk of more injury.
The safest way to help someone who has an electrical injury is to turn off the power source if possible. This will not stop the flow of electricity that is already happening, but it will prevent more damage. Once the current is stopped, it is still not safe to touch the injured person. You must separate them from the electric source with something that can't conduct electricity to you. This might be something like a rug or a rubber mat. Never use metal or anything wet.
There are four main types of electrical injuries that can cause burns.
- Flash injuries occur when a brief surge of current comes into contact with you but does not pass through your skin. These injuries are usually superficial.
- Flame injuries occur when a flash injury causes clothing or another part of a person to ignite. The current might not travel through your skin, but you can still be injured by burning clothing or hair.
- Lighting injuries are caused by a short surge of high-voltage energy. With this type of injury, electric current usually passes through your entire body and can cause extensive damage.
- True electrical injuries are the most severe type of electrical injury. This happens when the individual becomes a part of the electrical circuit itself. Entrance and exit wounds are common with this type of injury.
Outside of any internal injuries or damage, electrical burns are similar to other types of burns and are classified based on how much tissue was damaged. Superficial and partial-thickness or second-degree burns are considered minor burns, while full-thickness or third-degree burns are major injuries.
Superficial burns are minor burns that affect only the top layer of your skin.
Signs of this type of burn include:
Partial-thickness burns are usually minor burns, but if they are widespread enough they can be considered major burns. Sometimes called second-degree burns, this type of injury burns the outer layer of skin and the underlying layer beneath it.
Signs of these burns include:
These burns are considered minor when they make up a space of less than 2 to 3 inches. They are classified as major burns when they affect a larger area or occur in the following areas:
- Over a major joint
Full-thickness burns are the most severe type of burn. These burns are sometimes called third-degree burns and affect deep layers of tissue. In addition to pain, redness, swelling, and blisters on the surface of the skin, areas affected by third-degree burns can appear white or black. The tissue in this area usually becomes numb after the injury.
How burns are treated depends on the type of burn and how much damage was caused. Since electrical burns can cause damage that isn't visible, it's usually a good idea to at least be seen by a healthcare professional for a full assessment.
Minor or mild burns can usually be treated with comfort measures and time. Below are some first aid techniques to treat minor burns like superficial or small second-degree burns.
- Run cool water over the burned area or soak it in cool water. Do not use ice water. Keep under water for five to 30 minutes or apply a clean, cold wet compress.
- Cover the burned area with a clean, dry, sterile dressing to protect it from pressure or friction.
- Do not apply oil, butter, medication, or ice to burns.
- Use over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help with pain and swelling.
Major burns or more extensive minor burns usually require more formal medical treatment. If you have a severe burn or are trying to help someone with a major burn, call 911 or head to the emergency department. Severe burns may require extensive treatments like:
- Intravenous fluids
- Surgical repair or debridement
- Skin grafts
- Airway protection or other forms of life support
Beyond damage to the outer layers of the skin, electrical burns can cause extensive tissue damage. This isn't just limited to fat or muscle tissues either. Nerve fibers and heart function can be severely damaged by electrical currents. You can also suffer from severe dehydration or infection from burns after losing the protection of your skin's outer layers.
Complications and risks of electrical burns can include things like:
- Abnormal heart rhythms
- Swelling and edema
- Organ failure
- Low blood pressure
- Severe infection
Burns can lead to severe and long-lasting neurological damage, and smoke that's inhaled can damage the tissues in your throat and lungs.
When to See a Doctor
Since electrical burns can cause damage to inner tissues that you might not see, it's a good idea to visit a medical professional after any degree of electrical burn or injury.
If you have visible minor burns and choose not to seek immediate care, be sure to get additional help if you have:
- Burns that don't heal after two weeks
- Signs of infection
- Severe pain
- Changes in mood or mental status
When is a burn an emergency?
What to Expect
If you seek medical treatment for an electrical burn or injury, your healthcare provider will ask you about what happened leading up to the injury. They will review your medical history, what caused the burn, and your general health before the injury. Additional tests and blood work may be required to gauge the full extent of your injury.
When it comes to dealing with an electrical burn and your long-term recovery, be aware that severe burns can require extensive treatment.
Major burns are recognized as the most traumatic and debilitating of all physical injuries due to the pain they cause and the widespread effect they can have on nearly every system in the body. Significant injury and even death may result from severe burns, and ongoing wound care and rehabilitation will be required.
Long-term effects of electrical injuries can also cause depression and a post-traumatic stress response known as post shock electric shock syndrome. Talk to your doctor about any ongoing symptoms after an electrical injury. Damage from electrical currents can reach many parts of the body.
Electrical burns can vary in severity, and the damage they cause may not always be visible. For this reason, you may want to visit a healthcare provider after receiving an electrical burn or injury. Mild or low-grade burns are relatively easy to treat and many can be soothed at home, but major burns may call for an urgent visit to the emergency room.
A Word From Verywell
A small zap of electric shock isn't enough to cause a burn, but it doesn't take much more of a current to cause severe injuries. Electrical burns almost always require medical care because you may not be able to see the full amount of damage the electric current caused.
Electric burns are a common home injury that can be prevented by taking basic safety measures. Always use electric devices according to the manufacturer instructions, and never use electronics that have damaged wiring or are wet.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Can you get electrocuted in the shower?
Yes. Electric currents can pass through water and into your body. You may not have visible burns, but you can still be injured by electric currents in the water.
- What does it feel like to get electrocuted?
The feeling of an electric current passing through you depends on the strength of the current itself. A small amount of electricity can produce a buzz similar to static shock, while stronger currents can break bones or even cause your heart to stop.
- What is post electric shock syndrome?
Electrical injuries don't just cause damage to the skin. You can experience a host of problems impacting your nervous system and other body systems. A traumatic response to an electrical injury may be called post electric shock syndrome.
- What’s the difference between a shock and a burn?
An electric current can cause you injury without creating a visible burn. Electric currents that pass through your body can disrupt the normal electric activity that your heart and brain rely on. You can be burned and shocked at the same time, but you can also be shocked with an electric current without having a burn on your skin.