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by Scholten A

Definition

Electrical burns and injuries happen when electric currents pass through the body. The currents can damage the skin, tissues, and major organs. The damage can range from minor to severe. Sometimes it is fatal.

Causes

Electrical burns and injuries are caused by contact with electrical currents. The currents may come from appliances, exposed wiring, or lightning strikes.

Risk Factors

Things that raise the risk are:

  • Having a job with exposure to electric currents
  • Working outdoors
  • Being outside during thunderstorms
  • Working with electric systems or appliances without proper training

Symptoms

Symptoms depend on the amount of electricity and length of exposure.

Symptoms may be:

  • Severe muscle spasms
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Weakness or lightheadedness
  • Burns on the skin
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Heart pounding or fluttering from heart arrhythmias

Electric shock can also cause the lungs and heart to stop working.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis is based on events and symptoms. A physical exam will be done.

The doctor will look at the skin. Burns will be diagnosed based on how severe they are:

Classification of Skin Burns
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The doctor will want to check for damage under the skin. Tests may include:

  • ECG—to check the heart
  • Urine or blood tests—to check for damage to muscles
  • CT or MRI scans—to look for trauma to the body

Treatment

Electrical burns and injuries need care right away. Treatment will depend on how bad the injuries are.

Less severe symptoms may only need to be watched. Minor burns will be treated with ointments and dressings.

Severe shocks and injuries need emergency care. This may include:

  • CPR
  • Airway and breathing support
  • IV fluids—to restore balance in the body
  • Pain medicine
  • Antibiotics and ointments
  • Removal of dead tissue
  • Surgery—for deeper burns and to repair some wounds

Prevention

To reduce the risk of electrical burns and injuries:

  • Use child safety plugs in all outlets.
  • Keep electric cords out of children's reach.
  • Follow safety instructions when using electric appliances.
  • Avoid being out in lightning storms.
  • Follow safety instructions at work.

RESOURCES

American Burn Association  http://ameriburn.org 

Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians  https://familydoctor.org 

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Canadian Burn Survivors Community  http://canadianburnsurvivors.ca 

Health Canada  https://www.canada.ca 

References

Electrical injury. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/electrical-injuries . Accessed March 3, 2021.

Electrical injuries. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/injuries-poisoning/electrical-and-lightning-injuries/electrical-injuries. Accessed March 3, 2021.

Gentges J, Schieche C. Electrical injuries in the emergency department: an evidence-based review. Emerg Med Pract. 2018;20(11):1-20.

Preventing house fires. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/fire.html. Accessed March 3. 2021.

Lightning injuries. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/injuries-poisoning/electrical-and-lightning-injuries/lightning-injuries. Accessed March 3, 2021.

Revision Information

  • Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board Marcin Chwistek, MD
  • Review Date: 01/2021
  • Update Date: 03/03/2021