When an electrical current touches or flows through the body, it is known as an electric shock. It can happen wherever there is live electricity. The effects of electric shock range from none at all to severe injury and death.

Roughly 5% of burn unit admissions in the United States are due to electrical injuries. Anyone who has received a high voltage shock or an electrical burn should seek medical advice immediately.

This article will look at the symptoms of an electric shock, advice regarding first aid, and when to seek medical help.

a person putting a plug into a socket where they have to be careful to avoid getting an electric shockShare on Pinterest
A person may get an electric shock from faulty household wiring.

An electric shock occurs when an electrical current passes from a live outlet to a part of the body.

Electric shock can result from contact with:

  • faulty electrical appliances or machinery
  • household wiring
  • electrical power lines
  • lightning
  • electricity outlets

There are four main types of injuries that result from electrical contact:

  • Flash: A flash injury typically causes superficial burns. They occur as a result of an arc flash, which is a type of electrical explosion. The current does not penetrate the skin.
  • Flame: These injuries occur when an arc flash causes a person’s clothes to ignite. The current may or may not pass the skin.
  • Lightning: These involve short but high voltage electrical energy. The current flows through a person’s body.
  • True: The person becomes a part of the circuit, and the electricity enters and exits the body.

Shocks from touching electrical outlets or from small appliances in the home rarely cause serious injury. However, prolonged contact may cause harm.

The let-go threshold is the level where a person’s muscles contract meaning that they are unable to let go of the electrical source until someone safely removes it. This table shows the body’s response to different intensities of current, measured in milliamps (mA):

Current (mA)Response
0.2–2An electrical sensation occurs
1–2+A painful shock occurs
3–5The let-go threshold for children
6–10The minimum let-go threshold for adults
10–20A seizure can occur at the contact point
2299% of adults are unable to let go
20–50Seizures can occur
50–100Life-threatening heart rhythm can occur

According to a 2019 article, the domestic electricity running through a typical U.S. household is 110 volts (V), with some appliances needing 240 V. Industrial and power lines may carry more than 100,000 V.

The same article states that high-voltage currents of 500 V and more can cause deep burns, while low-voltage currents consisting of 110–120 V can result in muscle spasms.

A person can get an electrical shock through contact with an electrical current from a small household appliance, wall outlet, or extension cord. These shocks rarely cause severe trauma or complications.

Roughly half of the electrocutions occur in the workplace. High risk occupations for non-fatal electrocutions include:

  • construction
  • leisure and hospitality
  • education and health services
  • accommodation and food services
  • manufacturing

Several factors can affect how serious injury from electric shock is, including:

  • the intensity of the current
  • the type of current— alternating current (AC) or direct current (DC)
  • which part of the body the current reaches
  • how long a person has exposure to the current
  • resistance to the current

The symptoms of electric shock depend on many factors. Injuries from low-voltage shocks are most likely to be superficial, while prolonged exposure to electrical current may cause deeper burns.

Secondary injuries can occur following an electric shock. A person may respond by jerking away, which might cause them to lose balance or fall and injure another part of their body.

Short-term side effects

Depending on the severity, immediate effects of an electrical injury may include:

  • burns
  • irregular heartbeat
  • seizures
  • tingling or prickling sensation
  • loss of consciousness
  • headaches

Some people may experience unpleasant sensations but do not have apparent physical damage, whereas others may experience a lot of pain and obvious tissue damage.

Those who have not experienced a significant injury or cardiac abnormalities after 24–48 hours after electrocution are unlikely to develop them.

More severe side effects can include:

Long-term side effects

One study found that people who had received an electric shock were no more likely to experience heart problems 5 years after the incident, compared to those who had not.

A person may experience a variety of symptoms, including psychological, neurologic, and physical symptoms.

Symptoms may include:

PsychologicalNeurologicalPhysical
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)Loss of memoryPain
DepressionPoor concentrationFatigue
AnxietyTingling sensationsHeadache
InsomniaFaintingLimited range of motion
Reduced attention spanLoss of balanceMuscle spasms
Memory lossSciaticaStiff joints
Panic attacksUncoordinated movementsNightsweats

Anyone who has a burn caused by an electric shock or has experienced an electric shock should seek advice from a medical professional.

Minor electric shocks, such as those from small household appliances, do not typically need medical treatment. However, a person should see a doctor if they have experienced electrocution.

If someone has received a high voltage shock, call 911 right away.

If a person has experienced a serious electric shock, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) give the following advice for how to respond:

  • Do not touch the person as they may be in contact with the electrical source.
  • Call 911 or have someone else call 911.
  • If safe to do so, turn off the source of electricity. If it is not safe, use a non-conducting object made of wood, cardboard, or plastic to move the source away.
  • Once they are away from the electrical source, check the person’s pulse, and see if they are breathing. If their breathing is shallow, begin CPR immediately.
  • If the person is faint or pale, lay them down with the head lower than their body and keep the legs elevated.
  • A person should not touch any burns or remove burned clothing.

To perform CPR, a person should:

  1. Place hands on one on top of the other in the middle of the chest. Using the body weight, push down hard and fast and administer compressions 2 inches deep. The aim is to deliver 100 compressions per 60 seconds.
  2. Deliver rescue breaths. To do this, make sure the person’s mouth is clear, tilt their head back, lift the chin, pinch their nose closed, and blow into the person’s mouth to make the chest rise. Perform two rescue breaths and continue compressions.
  3. Repeat the process until help arrives, or the person begins breathing.

At the ED, the doctor will perform a thorough physical exam to assess potential external and internal damage. Potential tests include:

  • electrocardiogram (ECG) to monitor the heart’s rhythm
  • computed tomographic (CT) scan to check the health of the brain, spine, and chest
  • blood test
  • pregnancy test (for pregnant women only, to assess any impact on the fetus)

Not every person who experiences electric shock needs to visit the emergency department (ED). Follow this advice:

  • Call 911 if a person experiences a high voltage shock of 500 V or more.
  • Go to the ED if a person experiences a low-voltage shock resulting in a burn. Do not try to treat the burn at home.
  • If a person experiences a low-voltage shock with no burn injury, visit a doctor to ensure no damage has occurred.

Electric shocks can cause injuries that are not always visible. Depending on how high the voltage was, the injury may be fatal. However, if a person survives the initial electrocution, a person should seek medical attention to ensure that no injuries have occurred.

Anyone who thinks an individual has had a severe electric shock, call 911 right away.

Even after a minor shock, a person should see a doctor.

Electric shocks and the injuries they can cause range from minor to severe. Many electric shocks occur in the home, so check household appliances regularly for signs of damage.

People working in environments during the installation of electrical systems should take particular care and always follow safety regulations.

If a person has experienced a severe electric shock, administer first aid if it is safe to do so and call 911.