Electrical Burns
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Electrical Burns

Electrical Shock; Electrocution

En Español (Spanish Version)

Definition

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.

Classification of Skin Burns

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Causes

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.)

Risk Factors

The following factor increases your chances of developing electrical burns:

  • Any exposure to an electrical current

Symptoms

Symptoms include:

  • Skin burns
  • Muscle contraction or pain
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Weakness
  • Bone fractures
  • Headache
  • Sudden hearing impairment
  • Seizures
  • Heart arrhythmias

Diagnosis

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 burns—injure only the outer layer of skin. They are red and painful, and may cause some swelling. The skin turns white when touched.
  • Second-degree burns—are deeper and more severe. They cause blisters and the skin is very red or splotchy. There may be more significant swelling.
  • Third-degree burns—cause 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 pain because the nerves 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 tests–to check for severe damage to muscles

Treatment

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.

Prevention

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.

RESOURCES:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Ag Safety Database
http://www.cdc.gov/NASD/menu/topic/electrical_safety.html

City of Virginia Beach, Virginia Beach Emergency Medical Services
http://www.vbgov.com

University of Virginia Health System
http://www.healthsystem.virginia.edu

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Just the Berries, for Family Physicians
http://www.theberries.ns.ca

University of Northern British Columbia
http://www.unbc.ca

References:

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.

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