An electric shock happens when an electric current passes through your body. This can burn both internal and external tissue and cause organ damage.
A range of things can cause an electric shock, including:
- power lines
- electric machinery
- electric weapons, such as Tasers
- household appliances
- electrical outlets
While shocks from household appliances are usually less severe, they can quickly become more serious if a child chews on an electric cord our puts their mouth on an outlet.
Aside from the source of the shock, several other factors affect how serious an electric shock is, including:
- length of time in contact with the source
- overall health
- electricity’s path through your body
- type of current (an alternating current is often more harmful than a direct current because it causes muscle spasms that make it harder to drop the source of electricity)
If you or someone else has been shocked, you may not need emergency treatment, but you should still see a doctor as soon as possible. Internal damage from electric shocks is often hard to detect without a thorough medical exam.
Read on to learn more about electric shocks, including when it’s a medical emergency.
The symptoms of an electric shock depend on how severe it is.
Potential symptoms of an electric shock include:
- loss of consciousness
- muscle spasms
- numbness or tingling
- breathing problems
- problems with vision or hearing
- irregular heartbeat
Electric shocks can also cause compartment syndrome. This happens when muscle damage causes your limbs to swell. In turn, this can compress arteries, leading to serious health problems. Compartment syndrome might not be noticeable immediately after the shock, so keep an eye on your arms and legs following a shock.
If you or someone else has been shocked, your immediate response can have a big impact on minimizing the effects of an electric shock.
If you’ve been shocked
If you receive an electric shock, it might be difficult for you to do anything. But try to start with the following if you think you’ve been severely shocked:
- Let go of the electric source as soon as you can.
- If you can, call 911 or local emergency services. If you can’t, yell for someone else around you to call.
- Don’t move, unless you need to move away from the electric source.
If the shock feels minor:
- See a doctor as soon as you can, even if you don’t have any noticeable symptoms. Remember, some internal injuries are hard to detect at first.
- In the meantime, cover any burns with sterile gauze. Don’t use adhesive bandages or anything else that might stick to the burn.
If someone else has been shocked
If someone else receives a shock, keep several things in mind to both help them and keep yourself safe:
- Don’t touch someone who has been shocked if they’re still in contact with the source of electricity.
- Don’t move someone who has been shocked, unless they’re in danger of further shock.
- Turn off the flow of electricity if possible. If you can’t, move the source of electricity away from the person using a non-conducting object. Wood and rubber are both good options. Just make sure you don’t use anything that’s wet or metal based.
- Stay at least 20 feet away if they’ve been shocked by high-voltage power lines that are still on.
- Call 911 or local emergency services if the person was struck by lightning or if they came into contact with high-voltage electricity, such as power lines.
- Call 911 or local emergency services if the person has trouble breathing, loses consciousness, has seizures, has muscle pain or numbness, or is feeling symptoms of a heart issue, including a fast heartbeat.
- Check the person’s breathing and pulse. If necessary, start CPR until emergency help arrives.
- If the person is showing signs of shock, such as vomiting or becoming faint or very pale, elevate their legs and feet slightly, unless this causes too much pain.
- Cover burns with sterile gauze if you can. Don’t use Band-Aids or anything else that might stick to the burn.
- Keep the person warm.
Even if the injuries seem minor, it’s crucial to see a doctor after an electric shock to check for internal injuries.
Depending on the injuries, potential electric shock treatments include:
- burn treatment, including the application of antibiotic ointment and sterile dressings
- pain medication
- intravenous fluids
- a tetanus shot, depending on the source of the shock and how it occurred
For severe shocks, a doctor may recommend staying in the hospital for a day or two so they can monitor you for any heart issues or severe injuries.
Some electric shocks can have a lasting impact on your health. For example, serious burns can leave permanent scars. And if the electrical current goes through your eyes, you may be left with cataracts.
Some shocks can also cause ongoing pain, tingling, numbness, and muscle weakness due to internal injuries.
If a child sustains a lip injury or burn from chewing on a cord, they may also have some heavy bleeding when the scab eventually falls off. This is normal, due to the number of arteries in the lip.
Electric shocks can be very serious, so it’s important to seek help as soon as possible. If the shock seems severe, call 911 or your local emergency number. Even if the shock seems minor, it’s best to follow up with a doctor to make sure there aren’t any less visible injuries.