Electrical burns

When a person comes into contact with live electricity, any current that might pass through their body is an electric shock. Where the current enters and exits the body, an electrical burn might appear on the skin. Because the electricity is going through the body, it can impact internal organs as well.

Understanding electrical burns and shocks

Electrical damage can be internal

When a person comes into contact with live electricity (which could be in the form of things like lightning, household appliances, outlets or power lines), any current that might pass through the body is an electric shock.

Where the current enters and exits the body, an electrical burn might appear on the skin. And because the electricity is going through the inside, it can impact internal organs as well. Internal damage might be mild or severe, and it could even cause death.

Internal organs most often impacted by electrical shock include:

  • The heart, which might begin irregular rhythms or even shut down (known as cardiac arrest).
  • The kidneys, which might fail to function appropriately.
  • Muscle, which, if injured enough, might begin to leak substances from the damaged cells into the blood, which can then injure other organs.
  • The nervous system, which could impact the eyes, the ears and muscle control.

If the entrance and exit area of the skin burns, it is often painless and superficial (affecting only the top layer of skin). For that reason, the damage might seem minimal, but because of the potential for internal injury, an electrical shock shouldn’t be underestimated.

Factors that affect severity

The severity of an electrical shock depends on a few factors. One factor is voltage, which is a way to measure how much power is going through the circuit. The higher the voltage, the higher the power. Typically, if a line is less than 500 volts, it’s referred to as low voltage, whereas a line higher than 500 volts is high voltage. High-voltage shocks are more likely to do more damage, including death.

Another factor is whether the current is DC or AC. Direct current (DC) flows in only one direction through a line, while alternating current (AC) periodically switches direction. Most homes and office buildings are wired for AC power. In part because AC is much more widely used, it more frequently causes electrical shock and burn.

Cubicle outlet

Symptoms of an electrical burn

Common symptoms

An electrical burn happens when a person comes into contact with electricity. Even if an electrical burn seems minor, it may have caused internal damage that you can’t see.

Seek immediate medical care if the victim shows certain symptoms, including:

  • Burn or other injury to the skin.
  • Confusion, dizziness or headache.
  • Heart pounding or fluttering.
  • Muscle contractions.
  • Numbness or tingling.
  • Problems with balance.
  • Red or red-black urine.
  • Seizures.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Trouble staying awake.

Steps you can take

If you see a victim of electrical shock or burn, take these steps:

  • Call 911.
  • Remove the source of electricity if it’s safe to do so.
  • Check for breathing. Perform CPR if you’re trained and if it’s necessary.
  • Watch for signs of shock, and elevate the victim’s feet and legs.
  • Keep the victim warm.

Two clinicians rushing patient on a gurney

Diagnosing and treating electrical burns

Patients with serious electrical burns may be transferred to the UCHealth Burn and Frostbite Center on the Anschutz Medical Campus.

Our doctors will assess the electrical burn to determine which of the three types of electrical burns it is:

  • First degree, which is superficial (only impacts the top layer of skin).
  • Second degree, which impacts the top two layers of skin.
  • Third degree, which can go into the subcutaneous layer of skin (the innermost layer).

Older woman getting hand bandaged

Because the electrical current can impact internal organs as well as the skin, a doctor will diagnose the full extent of the damage using a variety of tests.

  • EKG to check heart health.
  • Urinalysis and/or complete blood count to check for muscle enzymes.
  • X-ray to check for fracture or dislocation.
  • CT scan to determine if head trauma occurred during the electrical event.

Burn specialists will determine the course of treatment for serious electrical burns. Treatment might include:

  • Prescription pain medicine.
  • Surgery to repair the burned area.
  • Treatment for any internal trauma.

Electric shock and burn can happen at home, in the workplace and outside. Infants, toddlers and young children are susceptible to electrical burns because they tend to be curious about their environment and touch or mouth electrical hazards. Misuse of anything electrical can put anyone in danger, including homeowners and workers. And anyone can be caught in a storm outside, putting them at risk from lightning.

Shock and burns can be avoided, though, with a few preventive measures.

  • Never use an electrical cord near water or where it could get wet.
  • Teach children about the dangers of electricity and not to use appliances by themselves. Homes with infants and small children should use outlet covers.
  • During thunderstorms, boaters should return to shore as soon as possible, swimmers should get out of the water and everyone should take shelter.
  • Use and regularly test GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) outlets.
  • Do not unplug an appliance that is on and running.
  • Avoid power lines when trimming trees or repairing roofs.
  • Never touch a downed power line.
  • Do not use frayed or damaged extension cords or an electrical plug that has had its third prong (grounding pin) removed.
  • On the jobsite, you can prevent electrical shock and burn as well.
  • Report and correct electrical hazards.
  • Inspect your electrical equipment and keep your workspace clean and dry—avoid all water.
  • Use all equipment properly, and don’t use faulty equipment.
  • Never carry a tool by its cord.
  • Maintain and wear all personal protective equipment (PPE). Wear non-conductive protection on your hands, feet, face and head.
  • Follow lockout/tagout practices.

For more resources, visit the OSHA page regarding electrical hazards.